Charles Dowdy raked a vegetable garden under s sunny North Austin sky Wednesday as his daughter, Lauren dillon watched.
He's quite a gardener, watering and weeding," Dillon said of the retired clinical psychologist who has struggled with Alzheimer's disease for almost two years. "He
still knows me, and I'm grateful for that."
Dowdy, 75, is one of thousands of potential candidates in Central Texas for two drugs that the National Institutes of Health announced Wednesday are a breakthrough in slowing, but not stopping, progression of moderately severe cases of the incurable, personality-destroying brain disease.
A nationwide study of 341 people with the disease - 16 of them at Baylor College
of Medicine in Houston - found that two years of taking either vitamin E or selegiline slowed progression of symptoms for up to seven months. selegiline, known as Eldepryl, is used to treat Parkinson's disease.
The drugs were equally effective - with no additional grain from using them together - in delaying important milestones such as entry into nursing homes and decreased ability to perform daily activities, including bathing, dressing and
handling money, according to the study published in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
About 4 million Americans are stricken with Alzheimer's most over age 65 but many in their 50s. Thousands die from its complications every year. The cause of the disease is unknown.
The Alzheimer's Association Greater Austin Chapter, which aids families affected by the disease, estimates there are 25,000 people with it in Central Texas,
affecting at least 100,000 patients, family and friends.
Before Wednesday's announcement, only a few other drugs, many of them available only through clinical trials, had been found effective in treating the disease. The best was a prescription medication commercially know as Cognex that had been shown to lessen symptoms, but only in about 30 percent of cases. Its potential side effects include temporary liver damage.
The new results are very exciting and may be of use to some patients, said Dr. Jaron Winston, medical director of Columbia St. David's Pavilion in Austin.
But Winston, who treats hundreds of patients with Alzheimer's disease, including Dowdy, said the research results need additional confirmation to be certain.
Dr. Rachelle Doody, clinical director of Alzheimer's disease research at Baylor College of Medicine, agreed.
"It takes more than one study to be definitive," Doody said. "But the treatments were fairly harmless. The risks were low. So they should be discussed by patients and their physicians/"
Both vitamin E and selegiline are antioxidants, and scientists believe that Alzheimer's disease, which progressively destroys brain cells involved with memory, may be related to oxidative damage. Selegiline also increases the supply
of important brain chemicals such as dopamine that are reduced by Alzheimer's disease.
Selegiline and vitamin E do have potential side effects. Reported problems with selegiline include fainting, confusion and sometimes, low blood pressure. High doses of vitamin E have been associated with increasing bleeding in some people.
Winston said Dowdy might be a good candidate for the vitamin E treatment.
"That's the most benign," Winston said. "But he's so far along, I'm not sure that doesn't bring up the idea of prolonging his pain."
Dillon said it was ironic that vitamin E had been shown to be useful in treating her father's disease. Her late mother, a chemist, was one of the first scientists to do research with vitamin E, Dillon said.
Winston and Doody said several other drugs in clinical trials are expected to be
even more successful in treating Alzheimer's disease than vitamin E and selegiline.
"There may be others in the next few years that really stop progression in its tracks." Winston said. "That's what we're hoping for."
Doody said a dozen potentially useful compounds are being tested , and some are available to patients whose doctor is involved in research.