Different types of research -- basic, translational, and clinical research -- are conducted in order to find ways to treat or prevent Alzheimer's disease. This section looks at translational research and Alzheimer's disease.
What Is Translational Research?
Translational research creates a two-way bridge between basic research and clinical research. It allows the flow of new knowledge from the laboratory to be applied as quickly as possible to potential new clinical tests or interventions. In fact, translational research is where new drugs, devices, or behavioral interventions aimed at preventing, diagnosing, or treating a disease such as Alzheimer's are actually created. Translational research makes it possible for scientists who conduct basic research in Alzheimer's to work more closely with experts whose focus is on treating people. This collaboration is important to developing safe and effective treatments.
Finding New Treatments
An important goal of translational research in Alzheimer's disease is to increase the number and variety of potential new drugs and other interventions that are approved for testing in humans. In the early- to mid-stages of drug discovery, scientists identify one or more compounds (chemicals) that could be effective against specific aspects of the disease (targets). The most promising compounds -- called candidate drugs -- are tested both in test tube and animal studies to make sure they are safe and effective. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviews this research information and then decides whether or not to approve a new clinical trial where the drugs can be tested in people.
Drugs in Development
Currently, a number of different compounds and drugs are under development that may one day be used to treat the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease, and the decline in thinking skills that can occur with aging. For example, some researchers are trying to identify compounds that can activate an enzyme which blocks the production of beta-amyloid, a protein found in high amounts in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. Others are developing drugs that stabilize cell structures that help transport nutrients and molecules in order to prevent the buildup of tau, another protein that can further harm the brain. Yet another approach is to discover new non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that might enhance thinking processes.
Imaging the Brain
Translational researchers are also developing new compounds and drugs to be used in imaging the brain. These are compounds that are designed to highlight activities or changes in the living brain to see if signs of Alzheimer's disease are apparent. One imaging compound breakthrough is Pittsburgh Compound B (PiB). It attaches to amyloid in the brain and, through a PET (positron emission tomography) scan, lets scientists see where amyloid is and how much of it is there. Scientists hope that imaging agents like PiB may one day lead to a way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease before it has caused significant damage to the brain and make it possible for doctors to treat the disease in its earliest stages.
Studying Drugs Used for Other Diseases
Another aspect of translational research involves finding out if drugs already approved to treat other diseases might be effective in treating Alzheimer's disease. For example, because of the associations between diabetes and Alzheimer's, scientists are looking at a class of drugs that increases a person's sensitivity to the hormone insulin to see if it can improve learning and memory problems.
Why Translational Research Is Important
Translational research is an important link between "bench" (the laboratory) and "bedside" (the doctor and patient) because it helps translate basic research into new therapies. Translational research makes it possible for pharmaceutical companies, government, and clinicians to develop and test a greater number of safe and effective treatments in people. Translational research can help move researchers closer to finding effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease.