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Did President Reagan suffer from Alzheimer’s disease while in office?

ddn has written countless stories about drug discovery and research efforts in the critical area of Alzheimer’s disease, and one area that researchers, clinics and drug manufacturers seem to be focusing on lately is pinpointing the onset of the debilitating disease. For example, in October, we reported on efforts by the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative (API) to test potential Alzheimer’s treatments and identify new biomarkers that could lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses for Alzheimer’s patients. Researchers at the API told us that although there are many promising treatments being studied in Alzheimer’s symptomatic patients, by the time most people begin to show symptoms of the disease, it has already ravaged the brain, rendering these treatments ineffective.

This cold, hard reality has been making headlines lately with the release of a new book, “My Father at 100: A Memoir,” a close-up account of the life of President Ronald Reagan as seen through the eyes of his son, Ron Reagan. The book, which came out a few weeks shy of what would have been the former president’s 100th birthday on Feb. 6, is “an exploration of his character,” Ron Reagan says, but addresses the ongoing question of whether his father suffered with Alzheimer’s while in office.

President Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in August 1994 at the age of 83, and he informed the nation about his diagnosis in a handwritten letter later that year. Although President Reagan’s White House doctors said they saw no evidence of Alzheimer’s while he was president, there was during his time in office widespread speculation that he demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration. For example, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl wrote in her own memoir that at her final meeting with President Reagan in 1986, “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was.” The president regained his alertness at the end of the meeting, Stahl wrote, adding, “I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile.”

Ron Reagan writes that that he noticed evidence of dementia as early as President Reagan’s first term. “I felt the first shivers of concern” during the 1984 reelection campaign, he writes, “that something beyond mellowing was affecting my father. My heart sank as he floundered his way through his responses. He looked tired and bewildered.” By 1986, President Reagan “had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names,” his son writes.

Still, as he hits the press junket, Ron Reagan is careful to say that we cannot know for certain whether President Reagan exhibited signs of Alzheimer’s during his presidency. He also asserts that he believes if Reagan had gotten the diagnosis during his two terms, he would have stepped down.

In this video with TV personality Joy Behar, Ron Reagan clarifies his characterization of his father’s illness in his book.

“One can deduce that the disease must have been present, but I say specifically that I saw no dementia-like signs when he was in office,” he tells Behar. “Let’s recall that this was the oldest president ever elected (President Reagan was in his 70s). By the time he’s reaching his mid-70s, he’s losing his hearing, he’s been shot and nearly killed—which will take a little of the wind out of your sails—and of course I am worried about him all the time, because it’s a very tough job with a lot of stress. Every once in a while I would see—almost like when you are watching television, and it momentarily goes out of focus and snaps back. You think, ‘what did I just see?’ But I didn’t know what it was, I just knew I was concerned about him for all sorts of reasons. In retrospect, it’s possible that some of those early things were signs of Alzheimer’s, but I don’t know, and I can’t really make that claim.”

Some of the controversy, Ron Reagan tells Behar, may stem from “the confusion between Alzheimer’s the disease and dementia, which is a symptom of the disease—which usually arrives in the later stages.”

“Knowing what we know now about Alzheimer’s, that it’s a process that extends for years or even decades before symptoms arise, it’s kind of an academic question as to whether the disease was present when my father had” the debilitating disease, Ron Reagan says in this interview.

I think many of the researchers who read our publication would agree. What do you all think of Ron Reagan’s assertions? How does this “academic question” impact efforts to treat, manage or even reverse damage caused by Alzheimer’s?

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January 27, 2011 Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Corporate, Labwork & Science | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prince of Darkness and wife bring personal genomics issues to light

Last week, our senior editor, David Hutton, shared with you the news that rock star Ozzy Osbourne had his full genome sequence. Shortly after the Prince of Darkness revealed the results of his testing at the TEDMED conference in San Diego, his wife, Sharon Osbourne—a celebrity of her own right, between managing her husband’s career and her many television gigs—discussed the experience on her new talk show, “The Talk.”

“The Talk” is a daily talk/variety show co-hosted by Julie Chen, Sarah Gilbert, Holly Robinson Peete, Leah Remini and Marissa Jaret Winokur.

According to the Osbournes, the couple decided to allow Cofactor Genomics and Knome Inc. to sequence and analyze their DNA, respectively, because “they were looking for a celebrity to say, “OK, I don’t mind knowing what my medical life is going to be and I don’t mind sharing it with the world,” said Sharon to her co-hosts.

“Eventually—say, in 10 years, this invention will be in every doctor’s office, all over the world, where they take your blood, they analyze it, and they will tell you your complete medical path in life,” Sharon, who is a colon cancer survivor, said. “Everything, from your allergies, to your heart, to your brain, to how clever you are, to what you excel in. It’s such a leap, scientifically and medically, for all of us, that in 10 years, we’ll go into a doctor’s office and you’ll know if you have a cancer gene. You will know how to deal with it before it becomes an active cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s.”

According to Sharon, among the insights Ozzy gained into his DNA were that he is allergic to coffee, has a “slight nerve disorder” as well as “the addictive gene” and is a” distant cousin” of TV talk show host and comedian Stephen Colbert. But Ozzy wasn’t exactly eager to hear the results, she said.

“He thought that it was, ‘where am I going to die,’ like someone was going to go to somebody and they were going to read his palm, like, ‘where am I going to go, so I never go into that place?'” Sharon said.

As David shared with you all last week, Ozzy has said that if genetic testing determines he has a risk of developing an untreatable disease such as Alzheimer’s, he’d rather not know about it. Ozzy’s tests came back negative in that regard, but Sharon is eagerly awaiting her results and hoping for the same outcome.

“The reasons I wanted to do it were because my father died of Alzheimer’s, and my mother’s mother died of Alzheimer’s, she said. “I want to know if I’m going to get it, so I can get my life in order.”

“I don’t know if I want to know,” said Sharon’s co-host, Peete, an actress and advocate for autism awareness and research. That’s the sentiment expressed by many folks since personal genetic testing became commercially available. We first reported on this debate in July 2009, when I interviewed 23andMe about a partnership the personal genomics company forged with PatientsLikeMe.com, an online patient community and platform for collecting and sharing patient data, on a large-scale genetic study of Parkinson’s disease. In an editorial column that month, I revealed that 23andMe was facing controversy because some view that patients may not be able to “handle” knowing more about their health, and that some doctors feel it’s not their responsibility to “explain” the outcome of these personal genetic tests to their patients.

In September, we also reported that some “direct-to-consumer” personal genetic testing providers are under federal scrutiny for alleged misleading test results, deceptive marketing and other questionable practices.

What about you? Do you want to know what sort of health problems your DNA has in store for you?

November 7, 2010 Posted by | Labwork & Science | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alzheimer’s prevention: A call to arms

As our managing editor, Jeffrey Bouley, discussed last week, in our November issue we detail one group’s effort to develop to “launch the era of Alzheimer’s disease prevention research”—before another generation of patients is lost (see “An ounce of prevention”).

That effort, the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, is a project launched by the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, a nonprofit, collaborative research center in Phoenix.

Led by reknowned Alzheimer’s researchers Drs. Eric Reiman and Pierre Tariot, the API aims to test potential Alzheimer’s treatments and identify new biomarkers that could lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses for Alzheimer’s patients.

Reiman and Tariot have been carrying the torch for Alzheimer’s disease prevention for many years. In the course of reporting on their work, Reiman shared with me an article they penned this year with colleague Jessica Langbaum that they consider “a call to arms.” The article, “Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative: a proposal to evaluate presymptomatic treatments as quickly as possible,” was published in the Future Medicine journal, Biomarkers in Medicine.

The article contends that the evaluation of presymptomatic Alzheimer’s treatments must become an urgent priority, identifies what is holding us back and proposes new public policies and scientific strategies to overcome these roadblocks.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

“Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an unacceptable problem. It takes a catastrophic toll on patients and family caregivers, and it is projected to have a financially overwhelming effect around the world in our children’s lifetime. In our opinion, the greatest roadblock in the scientific fight against AD is not necessarily the discovery of new treatments, but the means to evaluate them presymptomatically, when they may have their greatest impact, in a sufficiently rapid and rigorous way. It currently takes too many cognitively normal research subjects, too many years and too much money to evaluate more than a few presymptomatic AD treatments using clinical end points. Brain imaging and other biomarkers of AD progression and pathology have the potential to accelerate the evaluation of presymptomatic AD treatments. However, regulatory agencies are unlikely to provide accelerated approval for a presymptomatic AD treatment based solely on biomarker end points, without additional evidence from randomized clinical trials (RCTs) to conclude that a treatment’s biomarker effects are reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit. In the meantime, sponsors are reluctant to conduct presymptomatic AD trials without a regulatory approval pathway. This dilemma may at first seem like an insurmountable ‘catch-22,’ leading to a sense of nihilism and a lack of urgency, but inaction is not an option.”

The article makes a compelling case for a sea change in the way scientists, researchers and pharmaceutical companies approach treating this devastating disease. To view the entire piece, please click here to download this PDF file: Reiman.

October 21, 2010 Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit | , , , | 1 Comment

Trying to make Alzheimer’s merely a bad memory

Our very own chief editor Amy Swinderman had a very nice editorial regarding Alzheimer’s disease for our October issue, which you can read by clicking here. Don’t worry, it’ll open up in a new tab or window, so I’ll be waiting for you when you’re done.

OK, you’re back? Great.

Alzheimer’s disease poses one of the biggest potential healthcare crises going, particularly in places like the United States, where a huge Baby Boom population is entering into the risk years for age-related dementias, of which Alzheimer’s may be the single most terrifying to them and their children (and grandchildren).

So, there is little doubt you’ll be seeing a lot about the disease in ddn magazine, as companies and other organizations delve into the research and commercialization of therapies and diagnostics; in our ddn Online e-newsletter, which will feature a “Bench Press” article on Oct. 27 on some Alzheimer’s research and will continue to highlight the disease frequently thereafter; and here at this blog, where we need stuff to talk about and oh, there is so much to talk about with diseases like this, both good and bad.

In the meantime, here are some of our October 2010 issue articles (in their online form) dealing with Alzheimer’s-related items:

New chapter for neurodegenerative diseases unfolds

An ounce of prevention

Anavex taps CROs for Alzheimer’s program

Plus, you can click here or a blog post from the recently launched Harvard Health Blog to give you some additional commentary, insights and leads regarding Alzheimer’s disease.

October 14, 2010 Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Corporate, Dealmakers, Labwork & Science | , , , | Leave a comment