Thalidomide in clinical trial for Alzheimer's patients

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PHOENIX -- Alzheimer's disease affects more than 5 million Americans. While there's no cure, the medical world is working hard to find one and a drug that caused severe birth defects more than 50 years ago is now being looked at as a sign of hope.
“It's a lonely disease for the caregivers,” Carol McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin's husband, Tom, has Alzheimer's.

“He had no problems finding a job, but he couldn't keep it and I thought that's not right,” McLaughlin said.

She knew something was wrong when her husband couldn't remember basic tasks as a forklift driver.
“I would get on the Jeep and get the stack over there and I didn't know where they said to put it,” Tom McLaughlin said. “I knew it wasn't me.”

He has battled the disease for 10 years and medications had been helping "until the last visit about two weeks ago, where there was noticeable decline in his memory, he couldn't do anything,” Carol McLaughlin said.

“They're intended to improve people's symptoms for a period of time,” Dr. Marwan Sabbagh said. “They don't work in all people and they have not been able to show that they slow the rate of decline. So we're really looking for a drug that will stop the progression.”

Sabbagh is director of Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City. The drug he's hoping to stop memory loss with is called Thalidomide. It caused serious birth defects back in the late 1950s.
“FDA did not have any problem with our science,” Sabbagh said. “They said you have to ensure the safety of the participants because Thalidomide has a checkered history.”

Sabbagh said, “We noticed that it blocked another enzyme, key enzyme, in the brain called Beta-secretase and Beta-secretase has been an enzyme which is responsible, one of the two enzymes, responsible for the creation of amyloid, which is ultimately what leads to the Alzheimer's.”

A clinical trial is under way at the institute to determine if the pill can benefit those battling Alzheimer's in the mild to moderate stage.

“What we're looking for are participants who would be willing to take the medication or matching placebo,” Sabbagh said. ”Spinal tap is elective, encouraged but elective, and we're going to measure their memory scores, blood tests, if their interested spinal  fluid, and look at whether Thalidomide changes them before and after in a six-month study.”

As for the McLaughlins, knowing that this type of clinical trial is right here in Arizona is worth checking out.

“I thought it was great and I kept thinking, well, if it doesn't help him at least maybe it will help somebody down the line,” Carol McLaughlin said.

If the drug shows promising results, Sabbagh plans to propose a national clinical trial. The institute is still looking for participants. For more information log onto