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Healthcare and research

Banner Health part of several promising Alzheimer’s projects


SUN CITY— Within a building many Valley residents pass by regularly, some important discoveries have been made recently regarding a debilitating condition.

The Banner Sun Health Research Institute, on the north side of Grand Avenue near Banner Boswell Medical Center, has, for several decades, been at the forefront of battling Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other conditions.

Lately, that work has continued with cutting-edge research with potential new avenues of treatment.

Alzheimer’s disease vs. dementia
Alzheimer’s disease is defined by the World Health Organization as neurodegenerative, usually starting slowly and progressively worsening. It is widely seen as the cause of 60% to 70% of dementia cases.

The most common early symptom is difficulty in remembering recent events, but as the disease advances, the WHO says, symptoms can include problems with language, disorientation (including easily getting lost), mood swings, loss of motivation, self-neglect and behavioral issues.

Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, within the Research Institute, has been a part of some recent studies, in various ways, that have led to impressive innovations with more in the works.

Banner spokesperson Corey Schubert said between both its Phoenix and Sun City sites, the group has between 30 and 40 different active Alzheimer’s studies currently being conducted that include Alzheimer’s disease treatment, prevention trials and/or biomarker studies.

“These studies are funded mostly by industry sponsors (pharmaceutical companies), as well as the National Institute of Health, National Agency on Aging and other research grants and private funding partners,” Schubert said.

A breakthrough drug?
Dr. Danielle Goldfarb, a neurologist and a psychiatrist, is a memory specialist with Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City working on researching new drugs to help those with Alzheimer’s.

One of the more recent drugs tested is Lecanamab, which has gone through the third phase of a major trial with encouraging results. While there have been drugs that address either the cognitive impairment or the brain atrophy that lead to dementia, Lecanamab has been shown to slow patient decline in both, Goldfarb said.

“It’s a high bar, but we’re very excited about what this medicine can do,” she said. “There have been about 200 trials on these types of drugs and this is the first one to really slow the cognitive decline.”

Goldfarb said study sites, of which Banner was included, showed 27% slowing of cognitive decline. There was also significantly slowed decline on the five-point clinical dementia rating scale, she said.

The Alzheimer’s Association agrees with Goldfarb’s assertion, encouraging federal regulators to take the results seriously and get Lecanamab onto a reimbursement list.

“These are the most encouraging results in clinical trials treating the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s to date,” the association said in a Sept. 27 statement. “If full Clarity AD results are in line with today’s topline announcement and the FDA approves this treatment, Medicare beneficiaries living with Alzheimer’s, a terminal, progressive disease, deserve the same immediate, full coverage under Medicare afforded to those with other terminal diseases.”

Goldfarb said the letters “mab” at the end of the name Lecanamab are a reference to monoclonal antibodies. Treatment using those antibodies gained notoriety in November 2020 upon gaining FDA approval for use against COVID-19.

The study examining the drug’s effects is still seeking adults ages 55 to 80 to participate in a drug and placebo study. Anyone in that age group, who could undergo a PET and MRI scans, should visit this link to view other criteria if they want to participate in the study: aheadstudy.org/pre-screener.

Blood-based biomarkers

A simple blood test may be able to tell you whether you have Alzheimer’s disease and, in some cases, it can detect the disease decades before symptoms start, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Such a test would “be a game-changer in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and a senior author on the JAMA study.

Goldfarb said the method is close to gaining full approval.
According to an article from the Alzheimer’s Association, tau is a protein that helps stabilize the internal skeleton of nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain.

In Alzheimer’s disease, an abnormal form of tau builds up and causes the internal skeleton to fall apart, and emerging evidence suggests Alzheimer’s-related brain changes may result from a complex interaction among abnormal tau, beta-amyloid proteins and several other factors.

Abnormal tau, spread throughout the brain, can now be tracked using the method outlined by Reiman in the study, Goldfarb said.

Blood testing of people age 50 or older could detect the brain’s tau changes years before that person has any type of dementia or Alzheimer’s cognitive functioning changes. That could lead to additional screening and testing and, possibly, earlier treatment.

Goldfarb said Banner staff are confident Medicaid will approve the blood testing method soon.

A new type of PET scan
Positron imaging tomography, or PET scans, is a nuclear medicine neuroimaging tool that can be used to make a picture of a type of plaque accumulation within a person’s brain.

The Imaging Dementia — Evidence from Amyloid Scanning study, published in 2019, explored whether results from appropriately ordered scanning would affect clinical management.

According to a doctor from the Swank Center for Memory Care and Geriatric Consultation in Delaware, these results led to clinicians changing their management approach, often on the basis of scan results, in some cases, abandoning an incorrect initial diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease.

“Sometimes, ruling out Alzheimer’s is just as important as diagnosing it,” Goldfarb said. “It can lead to improved scheduling, better decisions and more years of general happiness. And in cases where some kind of diagnosis is caught early, that could happen before decline that is often simply chalked up to aging.”