For Alzheimer’s patients and their families, there may be a new effective treatment for the epidemic disease.

If the new studies succeed, a medicine that slows or even stops progression of the brain-destroying disease might be ready in three to five years, said. Dr. William H. Thies, chief medical officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. The group assists patients and caregivers, lobbies for more research and helps fund studies.

“The number of smart people working on this problem means to me we’ll begin to manage it better in the very near future,” said Thies. “It may be as short as three years away.”

That’s only if government and other sources provide tens of millions of dollars for additional research and more patients join clinical studies.

After decades of promising experimental drugs failing, scientists now believe they’re on the right track to targeting mechanisms to arrest a disease that steadily steals patients’ personality and ability to remember, think and care for themselves.

A vaccine is in mid-stage testing, and drugmakers shy about funding expensive treatment tests could start as many as 30 studies once they’re more confident that their approach is sound, Thies said. Early next year, the first study to try to prevent Alzheimer's begins — in people a decade away from symptoms but who have a genetic mutation that causes early onset Alzheimer's. It will include three drugs that each attack the country's No. 6 killer in a different way.

The number of Alzheimer's patients in the U.S. is expected to jump from the current 5.4 million to 16 million by 2050. Costs for care, mostly from taxpayers, could skyrocket from roughly $200 billion this year to $1.1 trillion in 2050. Currently a handful of treatments only ease symptoms temporally.

On Monday drugmaker Merck & Co. announced it's just begun the first combined mid- and late-stage study of a BACE inhibitor. That's a new type of drug designed to slow mental and functional decline by limiting production of beta amyloid, the protein that's the main ingredient in brain-damaging amyloid plaques considered the most likely cause of Alzheimer's.

In addition, researchers continue to advocate that patients must be treated early on, before Alzheimer's has destroyed much of their brains.

The big prevention study to start early next year, called DIAN TU, is meant to help find a way to do that, by testing drugs on people with a family history and genes that make them likely to develop Alzheimer's in their 50s, rather than after 65.

Meanwhile two late-stage patient studies started this fall with a drug called LMTX developed by TauRx Pharmaceuticals Ltd. It targets tangles in the brain with an abnormal version of a protein called tau.

Thies, of the Alzheimer's Association, thinks the disease likely is caused by a combination of those tau tangles and amyloid beta plaques.

The key issue for all these drugs will be what side effects they cause, because patients would take them for many years.

The studies are still being investigated.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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