SAN DIEGO, Calif. - The National Institutes of Health estimates 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease.
There's no therapeutic way to slow or prevent the disease … yet.
One researcher's remarkable discovery could lead to doctors using existing drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease.
Kristina Short is reading a story about Ellen DeGeneres to her mom. Her mom, Bobbie Heldt, has Alzheimer's disease, accelerated by a bad fall six years ago.
Heldt said, "We've had a very nice life together, and the kids are just perfect children."
They help Heldt live her best life, but it's been tough for her husband and six children to watch her decline.
Short said, "We've all had to adjust to a new person, my mom … and I still miss my old mom. It's probably the hardest part."
Research by Jerold Chun, professor and senior vice president at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, and his team shows that the brain recombines or reshuffles DNA in Alzheimer's disease patients, creating thousands of new gene variations.
"We believe that is the process, which hasn't been recognized before, that could give rise over time to the most common form of Alzheimer's disease," Chun said.
The Alzheimer's disease gene, APP, is recombined by an enzyme found in HIV called reverse transcriptase.
HIV patients have been taking Food and Drug Administration-approved inhibitors to stop the virus from replicating itself for years.
Chun wants to see if Alzheimer's patients could get the same benefit.
"This mechanism could extend beyond Alzheimer's disease and actually be relevant to a number of other types of brain disorders," said Chun.
Chun wants to begin trials testing the drugs with Alzheimer's patients right away.
In his research, he has found that virtually no HIV patients who'd been taking medications that include the reverse transcriptase inhibitors developed Alzheimer's disease.
He believes the HIV drugs could prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.