DISEASE-A-WEEK CHALLENGE # 2: the California Stem Cell Program vs. Alzheimer’s Disease

by Don C. Reed

In the middle  of the  night,  while driving across a deserted freeway overpass, a woman saw a pedestrian in his pajamas. A large man, he was walking back and forth, occasionally looking down at the traffic below. He seemed disturbed.  The sensible thing, of course, would  have been for the woman to just drive  by.

Instead, she pulled her car over to his side of the road. Pushing open the driver’s side door, she partially  boxed in the confused man. She called 911, got out of her car, and talked softly until the police arrived.

Why had she stopped? She recognized the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Before the disease took over, the man was a leader in the community: strong, intelligent, respected by all.

But today, for the safety of himself and others, this friend of our family is institutionalized.

His exhausted wife spends all day with him at the “home”.  He still recognizes her, so far, because he gets upset if she has to leave the room, even for a moment.

Retired professionals, the two can afford (just barely) the costs of an institution. Most families cannot, and try to care for AD folks at home: doing the endless and exhausting chores alone. Everything you do for a baby must eventually be done for an Alzheimer’s sufferer as the disease progresses. They may even attack those trying to provide for their needs — people they no longer recognize

Five million Americans families face such challenges today, and the older we get, the more likely the disease. For those over 65, one in ten has Alzheimer’s.


Is help on the way? Here is something that sounds really good—at first.

On January 11, 2011,  the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) was signed into law. Congress and the Senate had allowed it, but only after a huge effort by patient groups, including a petition signed by 110,000 citizens, gathered by the Alzheimer’s Association. The drive was spearheaded by such champions of medical research as Newt Gingrich, Maria Shriver, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

But the National Alzheimer’s Project Act HAD NO MONEY.

“Without power to authorize new federal spending, or to redirect current federal spending…  NAPA cannot realistically hope to accomplish its goals.”


I could not believe this. A federal program without funding?  So  I contacted the office in charge of NAPA, and asked them directly: was it true?  Had a federal program to deal with Alzheimer’ been approved– without money?

I received the following response.

“Dear Mr. Reed:

“You are correct. Congress did not appropriate any funds for the implementation of the NAPA or for the ongoing operation of the associated Federal Advisory Council…

“Office of Disability, Aging, and Long Term Care Policy

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation

Department of Health and Human Services”

“May 29, 2015

–personal communication, name redacted.

But perhaps the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was providing appropriate levels of funding?

“The NIH budget is not able to fund enough Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research. The current outlook is that only about 3% of grants reviewed by the National Institute of Aging (the primary funding source for AD research) will be funded.”

— Dr. Matthew Blurton, University of California at Irvine.

https://www.alzforum.org/new/detail.asp?id=2616 )

But the California stem cell program is fighting back.

At UC San Diego, David Belasko is using microscopic skin cells from Alzheimer’s patients to develop a  model of Alzheimer’s: a  disease in a Petri dish.

If the disease could be studied cell by cell at every stage of its development, we might find its weak spot—and prevent, cure or delay the onset of AD.

Just delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s for five years would be hugely helpful: more good years for the patients, less stress on their families, and billions of dollars for the economy.


Another possible therapy might be to use cells derived from human embryonic stem cells as a way to develop and test new drugs.  Imagine if there was a pill or injection you could take, to battle back against Alzheimer’s!

Using that approach, David Schubert of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has developed a new drug, named CAD-31.

CAD-31 needed two abilities to fight Alzheimer’s: first, it had to be neurogenetic, to make lots of new nerve cells; and secondly, it had to be neuroprotective to take care of the good cells, in the poisonous environment of the aged human brain.

How is it doing?

CAD-31 had “extensive testing for safety, and passed with flying colors. It was then put into an AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) mouse model where it stimulated  neurogenesis and prevented behavioral deficits (the loss of abilities)… In year 3 of the project we will determine if CAD-31is able to reverse AD symptoms in old AD mice…”


But the last word belongs to someone you might know, Leeza Gibbons former host of  Entertainment Tonight—who has dedicated her life to fighting Alzheimer’s.

The force behind “Leeza’s Place”, which offers relief to Alzheimer’s caregivers, Ms. Gibbons served as a board member of the California stem cell program.

As she puts it:

“In the fight against Alzheimer’s, we need three things: awareness, care and a path to cure… The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is systematically using stem cells as a sword– to slay the dragons of disease and life-limiting illnesses–  including the thief of memory called Alzheimer’s.

“It is part of the California commitment to attacking neurological diseases, so that one day we will be able to say:

“This assault on millions is just a memory.”

–Leeza Gibbons, personal communication

Don C. Reed is the author of the forthcoming book, STEM CELL BATTLES: Proposition 71 and Beyond, from World Scientific Publishing, Inc.


Follow his DISEASE-A-WEEK CHALLENGE series about the California stem cell program, at  https://www.stemcellbattles.net.

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