Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A cure for Alzheimer's? "Absolutely." The question is, when?

A cure for Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is coming--but when?   Will the Obama administration seize the opportunity to accelerate efforts to improve the health and wealth of Americans--or are the Obamans too stuck inside their own model of shortsighted austerity to take advantage of scientific progress?  

A new study out today suggests that a reliable test for AD may be available soon.   A team of 13 doctors and scientists, spread across three countries--Belgium, Sweden, and the US--teamed up to write “Diagnosis-Independent Alzheimer Disease Biomarker Signature in Cognitively Normal Elderly People,” appearing in the Archives of Neurology.  The study suggests that a test of spinal fluid will yield up indicators as to whether someone is suffering from the beginnings of the disease.

This would seem to be a big breakthrough in AD research.   After all, you can’t cure a disease if you don’t know exactly what it is--including its biomarkers.

Yet interestingly, at least one prominent doctor didn’t seem very impressed with these new findings.   On his CNN blog today,  Dr. Sanjay Gupta wrote: “I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that nowadays, there aren’t great options for prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.”  And then he added another downbeat observation:

Even if the spinal tap becomes a proven, effective screening test for AD – would you really want to know, if there isn’t much you can do about it?

A bit defeatist, wouldn't one say?  Don't go looking for bad news, Dr. Gupta is saying--because you might find it, and then you will feel even more defeated.   The counter view, of course, is that knowledge is power--the beginning of power to achieve a cure.   And without knowledge of AD, surely there's no hope.

Perhaps we know why Dr. Gupta was recruited by the Obama administration for the post of Surgeon General of the United States in early 2009.  He shares their “scarcitarian” mindset, the idea that medical advance means medical expense.  But in fact, medical advance means, over the long run, medical savings--enormous medical savings.  That was the story of all cures--in addition to the humanitarian imperative, being healthy is cheaper than being sick.  And living people are more economically productive than dead people.   Moreover, if the new cure could be made in the US, that new production would be a source of jobs and wealth.     But as we know, the Obamans seem interested in bailouts and “stimulus”; by contrast, the nuts and bolts of actual production have little appeal--and they seem to look askance at any new economic activity beyond issuing and signing checks--gotta watch that “carbon footprint.”

On “ABC World News” last night, another medical journalist, Dr. Richard Besser,  (picture above) was much more upbeat: The new research he said on the broadcast, will lead “one day” to “a cure for the five million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's.”  Dr. Besser also spoke, on air, to Dr. Paul Aisen,  a neurologist at the University of California at San Diego, who offered viewers real hope:

We now have a tool that allows us to identify the disease, years before dementia starts.  And that's the stage of the disease at which intervention should be effective.  if   treating the Alzheimer's Disease process before there's irreversible damage to the brain.   I think that's the key to bringing this epidemic of Alzheimer's under control.

“Bringing this epidemic of Alzheimer's under control”--now that’s hope, that’s change we can believe in.  

OK, but when do we get AD under control?  As Dr. Besser recounted his conversation with Dr. Aisen to guest-anchor George Stephanopoulos, Dr. Besser recalled, “I asked him if there would be a cure or an effective treatment  in our lifetime.  And the answer I got, George,  'absolutely.'"  Stephanopolous agreed that was cheerful news, but failed to pin down Besser as to a more specific timeline--”our lifetime,” after all, is a bit unspecific.  For the record, Dr. Besser and Stephanopoulos are both in their early 50s, so we can all do some mathematical guesstimating.

So an AD cure is in sight--the issue is whether or not we should speed up the cure by mobilizing public and private resources to conquer AD before AD conquers all of us.

Once upon a time, spurring the progress of an ambitious undertaking would have been a no-brainer for a Democratic president.  John F. Kennedy, for example, relished the space race as an opportunity to show off America’s greatness.  As JFK said at Rice University in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon.”  Not only that, he continued, this feat would be accomplished in the cming decade, because setting such a goal “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”   It's easy to imagine that a different president would have said "we'll get around to getting to the moon," in which case, of course, the Apollo 13 landing never would have happened.  Not in the 60s, not never.

Kennedy, indeed, had the "right stuff"--and that’s what we need today: the organization and measuring of “the best of our energies and skills.”  Everybody responds better to a challenge--and Kennedy challenged us, so profoundly, that even after his tragic death, we fought the good fight to get to the moon.  And indeed, that’s how big things get done--through inspiration and mobilization, getting our energies and skills in gear.

Unfortunately, the incumbent Democratic administration doesn’t seem interested in any great undertaking to cure AD.  In fact, it has allowed federal funding for AD research to level off.  To the Obamans, the only issues in healthcae seem to be covering everyone, while at the same time “bending the cost curve” so that healthcare gets cheaper, according to Office of Management and Budget/Congressional Budget Office rote calculations.   That’s a terrible way to run a government--letting OMB/CBO determine policy.

In that vein, one has to wonder whether federal beancounters would have let the Manhattan Project, for example, go forward, on the ground that atomic technology was too expensive and speculative.  Fortunately, another Democratic president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, wasn’t interested in green-eyeshade objections.  As assistant secretary of the Navy during World War One, FDR had seen the reality of trench warfare; so in World War Two, he wanted to use technology to minimize that sort of carnage.  And so he gambled on the wisdom of Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, and Robert Oppenheimer.   The gamble paid off; Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives by bringing World War Two to a quick end.  And yes, the atom bomb, and then atomic power, saved money, too.

Instead, the Obama administration is patting itself on the back for Medicare reductions that will never come to pass.   Real science is ignored, while fake politics is extolled.  Only in Washington DC would such foolishness seem normal, even savvy.

1 comment:

  1. I hate to break it to you, but Apollo 13 moon landing never *did* happen! That sort of distracts the reader from the point you're trying to make. Apollo 11 was the first moon landing, Apollo 12 the second, and Apollo 14 the third.