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I-TEAM: AU doctor makes breakthrough on Alzheimer’s

Published: May. 26, 2022 at 6:42 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An all-new I-TEAM investigation has uncovered an alarming trend with Alzheimer’s disease.

Experts predict a significant spike in cases in just the next few years, but it’s not all bad news.

Our Meredith Anderson found a new doctor at Augusta University who has made a new breakthrough.

By 2025, the Alzheimer’s Association believes cases in Georgia and South Carolina will jump by more than a fourth. Currently, Georgia is 26.7% ‚and S.C. is 26.3%.

Dr. Qin Wang hasn’t even finished unpacking her lab boxes yet.

“We’re very, very excited about this, for sure,” she said.

She’s ready to get moving on some clinical trials. She’s working to get funding to test a drug that wouldn’t just slow down the disease.

It could help patients regain some of their lost mental abilities.

Meredith Anderson: “So this could be the first?”

Dr. Wang: “Could be. Yeah. That would be huge!”

Huge is a bit of an understatement considering the impending Alzheimer’s tsunami. Not our description, by the way. That’s what medical experts are calling it.

With a projected 12.7 million cases flooding the U.S. health care system by 2050, researchers need to find a way to shift to the tide – and soon – or we’ll all have to face the music.

Well, I really don’t mind the rain, and the smile can hide all the pain.

Reverend Lloyd Tripp loved this song – his church in Dalton, Georgia – and his family.

Leslie Tripp Holland: “Three of his uncles died from Alzheimer’s.”

When he was diagnosed with the disease, his daughter says her family leaned on the Alzheimer’s Association for support. She was only 29 when he died.

“There were things like my wedding, you know, and life events that hadn’t even happened yet,” she said.

Holland is now the senior director of marketing and communications for the Georgia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. She joined us via Zoom with her counterpart in South Carolina. It’s personal for Beth Sulkowski too.

Sulkowski: “My great-grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease.”

Working in the palmetto state, she faces an additional challenge. South Carolina is one of the top five neurology deserts – meaning there aren’t enough doctors to treat Alzheimer’s, and the ratio is only expected to get worse.

“Less than 10. Neurologists for every 10,000 people living with dementia by 2025,” she said.

Meanwhile, in the entire state of Georgia, Holland says there are only around 100 geriatricians or primary care doctors with additional training in treating older adults. And that’s right now, before the Alzheimer’s tsunami has washed ashore.

“That need is going to need to go up almost 400% as well, to meet the needs as we go along,” she said.

In 2021, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates Georgia and South Carolina racked up a total of more than 13.6 billion in unpaid Alzheimer’s care. Meanwhile, total per-person Medicaid payments – for Medicare beneficiaries 65 and older with Alzheimer’s or other dementias are 22 times as costly as other Medicare beneficiaries

Sulkowski: “At the end of the only way that we can really tell change that cost curve is to find a better way to treat this.”

This is where Dr. Wang comes in. She moved to Augusta last month from Birmingham where she will continue her work with a drug once used to treat depression and schizophrenia. Idozoxan targets the part of the brain that controls our so-called ‘fight or flight’ response.

She found the adrenaline it signals and receives can also trigger Alzheimer’s devastating attack on brain cells. In tests on mice – she found it’s been able to block that, but she discovered an added benefit.

Dr. Wang: “We can preserve the neurons to noradrenergic neurons and also rescue their cognitive function.”

Meaning some of the Alzheimer’s damage could be reversible.

Meredith Anderson: “That’s a huge deal.”

Dr. Wang: “That that is, that is right. Yeah.”

Meredith: “That’s giving people back their loved ones if it works.”

Dr. Wang: “Now we really hope we can actually have this drug tested in humans.”

Which can move exponentially faster since the drug has already been tested for something else, but the process still won’t be fast.

Dr. Wang still has to secure funding and do more paperwork – so trials could maybe begin in a year at best.

Both Holland and Sulkowski admit the wait can be frustrating, especially for families suffering now, but they know researchers like Dr. Wang are making progress every single day.

Sulkowski: “I take hope in that. Because even though it’s a slow-moving vehicle, there are so many vehicles on the highway, there are so many pathways that we’re working towards.”

Including things we all can do right now, like diet and exercise, as researchers look for new connections between a healthy body and mind.

Holland: “We are also really working on ways that we can all live better and age better and age healthier. Eeven with the disease, we can live our best, much longer.”

None of this can bring back Holland’s father. Dr. Wang’s family member she lost to Alzheimer’s.

“Yeah, yeah. My in-law, actually,” she said.

She knows firsthand how Alzheimer’s is the only disease where you have to lose a loved one – twice.

“He was so caring and so so gentle, so considerate, but then he just changed,” said Dr. Wang.

Which has made her dedication to finding a cure now so much more personal than when she started. She also hopes her story inspires others – especially young girls – to get into biomedical research.

You never know whose life you might be able to save one day. We’ll keep an eye on Dr. Wang research for you.

If someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they hope you reach out to your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. They can help you and you and your family in so many ways.

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