More than 5 million people in the U.S. currently live with Alzheimer’s disease. And according to the Alz-heimer’s Association, the situation is only going to get worse.
Pharmaceutical companies have invested heavily in developing Alzheimer’s drugs, many of which target amyloid-β, a peptide that misfolds and clumps in the brains of patients. But so far, no amyloid-β-targeted medications have been successful. Expectation for the most advanced drugs—bapineu-zumab from Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson and solanezumab from Eli Lilly & Co.—are low on the basis of lackluster data from midstage clinical trials. That sentiment was reinforced last week when bapineuzumab was reported to have failed the first of four Phase III studies.
Gregory M. Cole, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. These drugs “would cost patients tens of thousands of dollars per year,” he estimates. That hefty price tag stems from bapineuzumab and solanezumab being costly-to-manufacture monoclonal antibodies against amyloid-β.
By 2050, the nonprofit estimates, up to 16 million Americans will have the memory-robbing disease. It will cost the U.S. $1.1 trillion annually to care for them unless a successful therapy is found.
“There’s a great need for inexpensive Alzheimer’s treatments,” as well as a backup plan if pharma fails, says Larry W. Baum, a professor in the School of Pharmacy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. As a result, he says, a great many researchers have turned their attention to less pricy alternatives, such as compounds from plants and other natural sources.
Curcumin, a spice compound derived from the rootstalk of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa), has stood out among some of the more promising naturally derived candidates. In addition to contributing to curry dishes’ yellow color and pungent flavor, curcumin has been a medicine in India for thousands of years. Doctors practicing traditional Hindu medicine admire turmeric’s active ingredient for its anti-inflammatory properties and have used it to treat patients for ailments including digestive disorders and joint pain.
When administered to mice that develop Alzheimer’s symptoms, curcumin decreases inflammation and reactive oxygen species in the rodents’ brains, researchers have found. The compound also inhibits the aggregation of troublesome amyloid-β strands among the animals’ nerve cells. But the development of curcumin as an Alzheimer’s drug has been stymied, scientists say, both by its low uptake in the body and a lack of funds for effective clinical trials—obstacles researchers are now trying to overcome.