LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center will take part in a national clinical research study, testing a drug that could treat Alzheimer’s — an incurable disease that affects brain function and eventually leads to death.

The study marks Pennington’s entry into the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study network, an elite group of research sites that are leading federal efforts to find an Alzheimer’s cure.

“It took a lot of hard work, but we finally got there,” said Dr. Jeffrey Keller, director of Pennington’s Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention. “The fact that we seized this designation really says to the physicians in the community, the researchers and, hopefully, the citizens that we really have something special here.”

The study, which is called NOBLE, will test a drug that aims to slow the pace of Alzheimer’s for people who are in mild to -moderate stages of the disease. Pennington is one of 50 centers participating in the research, which is sponsored by drugmaker Toyama Chemical Co, Ltd.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any new drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s since 2003.

According to the national Alzheimer’s Association, about 81,000 Louisiana residents over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s — about 13 percent of the state’s senior population. That figure is expected to swell to 110,000 residents by 2025 — 36 percent of the senior population.

Nearly 1,300 people in Louisiana died of Alzheimer’s in 2010, the most recent figure available.

Keller said the study represents a move away from two specific pathologies that have been driving Alzheimer’s research but have yielded few results.

“This is an out-of-the box idea, which is why it’s getting a lot of traction,” he said. “It’s not at all like the things that we have been doing, which haven’t been working.”

The idea is that the new drug, “behaves like a product that is naturally made by the brain,” Keller said.

Those with Alzheimer’s don’t seem to be producing it as much.

“If we can supplement it, it’s going to have beneficial effects on the brain,” Keller said.

Dr. Lon Schneider, a University of Southern California professor and ADCS director for the NOBLE study, said that shift is key to the study and its importance.

“Finding an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s has been challenging to say the least,” he said.

Schnieder said it’s often difficult to develop research sites, which require well-trained staff and other strict criteria.

“It’s hard to do these kinds of studies,” he said. “This is a big deal for Pennington to have been able to advance to this level.”

Keller moved to Louisiana from the University of Kentucky about six years ago with the goal of putting Pennington on the map for Alzheimer’s research. He’s quick to note that the latest recognition isn’t his own — it’s a testament to the staff and volunteers.

“We’ve achieved this through the help of everybody,” he said. “We want to keep building on this.”

Pennington screens about 2,000 people a year for Alzheimer’s disease, he said. Year-after-year they look for early signs.

“Whenever they have had a significant change, we have trials for them and interventions,” Keller said.

Keller said it’s expected that Alzheimer’s patients from across the region will take part in the latest study, which will include 12 participants — one of which has already been selected.

Keller said that, on average, one of every four potential volunteers they see will qualify so he estimates that they need 50 Alzheimer’s patients to come in and see if they qualify.

Researchers expect recruiting will take 18 months, then the treatment study will last a year.

The institute has six other Alzheimer’s studies underway — “the largest by far in the Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi area,” Keller said.

Those who don’t qualify for NOBLE may be eligible for another test, he noted.

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