History provides perspective, probably because we keep repeating it.
Several hundred years ago, smallpox was the scourge of Europe. Treatment, such as it was, consisted of compassion, fluids, and a gamut of various herbs, bark, roots, and fungal preparations, none of which changed the mortality. The diligent healer of the late middle ages tried hard to find just the right plant preparation that would prevent or cure smallpox. By the late 1700’s there had been multiple cases of successful use of cowpox to vaccinate (from the Latin vacca for cow) people, with good results, culminating in Edward Jenner’s publication in 1798. Mind you, like many human discoveries, the process had actually been around a long time, if not particularly well known, well understood, or even believed.
Regardless of its provenance, regardless of its success, the major problem facing those who used vaccination to prevent smallpox was not technology, but common preconceptions. The idea of using an active biological agent – the cowpox virus – flew in the face of the common certainties about how to treat disease. Everyone “knew” that treatment lay in finding just the right plant, whether a root or a bark. Herbalists knew that if they worked hard and put enough resources into finding that perfect mixture of plant compounds, they could cure smallpox. The fact that they were looking in the wrong place, didn’t seem to occur to them.
Back to the future and listen to the echo of history.
We now know that we can reset gene expression in the microglia that play the key role in driving the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. The data has been accumulating for 20 years, as have the numerous articles in the medical literature and the books and textbooks on this field. And yet, regardless of its provenance, regardless of its success, the major problem facing those who work to prevent and cure Alzheimer’s disease is not technology, but common preconceptions. The idea of using an active biological agent – like the human telomerase gene – flies in the fact of common certainties about how to cure Alzheimer’s. Everyone “knows” that treatment lies in finding just the right drug, whether monoclonal antibody or small molecule. Pharmacology companies know that if they work hard enough and put enough resources into finding that perfect set of molecules, they could cure Alzheimer’s. And once again, the fact that they are looking in the wrong place, doesn’t seem to occur to them.
The echo is hauntingly familiar. Once again, the advance of medicine lay (and will lay) not in finding the right herb (or the right antibody), but in finding a sophisticated and accurate understanding of the disease we are trying to treat. Just as nothing worked in the 18th century until we understood vaccination as a way of preventing smallpox and other viral diseases, so nothing will work in the 21st century until we understand resetting gene expression as a way of preventing and curing Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s time to start looking in the right place.
And it’s long past time to cure Alzheimer’s disease.