Category Archives: Research

Ralph “Passes” the Test to Participate in Alzheimer’s Study

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The research nurse at Emory’s Brain Center called a week ago asking if we—Ralph and I because caregivers play an active role—would be interested in participating in a research study.  The nurse had already looked at Ralph’s chart and said she thought he’d be a good fit.

The study is  being conducted by the pharmaceutical company Merck  on a possible treatment to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. As the Merck brochure says, “This study is designed to test the idea that inhibiting a specific enzyme, BACE, may slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug in this study, MK-8931, is a BACE inhibitor, which means it helps stop the BACE enzyme from producing amyloid beta peptides. Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain may be the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease. By inhibiting the actions of the BACE enzyme, it may in turn help stop the formation of those amyloid plaque deposits.”

In other words, the study hopes to find a way to slow down the build up of the plaque that is assumed to cause Alzheimer’s and that is evident in Ralph’s brain according to the spinal tap his doctor administered several years ago.

I glanced at Ralph, who was on the couch having his afternoon nap, and said yes, I thought we might like to participate. I was actually quite excited. In the past Ralph has not qualified for studies and drug trials like this because of his MRI problem—the bb pellet that has been lodged in his tongue since a shooting accident when he was eight-years-old not only uncomfortably heats up during the procedure but distorts results—but this particular study has dropped the MRI requirement.

The nurse immediately emailed the study’s descriptions and consent forms, which I read and explained to Ralph. And explained again.

“I hate taking pills.”/“You won’t even notice the extra pill.”

“How often will I have to go see the doctor?”/“Every other month.”

“What if I’m stuck with the placebo? It’ll be a waste of time?”/“But the study will give you the real pill afterwards, and in any case, the study will benefit others, like your kids who are at genetic risk.”

“Ok, it sounds good. But I hate taking pills.” The familiar loop repeated itself over and over, and each time he ended up agreeing to participate, if with tepid enthusiasm.

Three days later we were at Emory. (Evidently the study, which has already been going for a year or two, needed a few extra last-minute entries and the deadline got pushed up so we were a rush job.)

Ralph took two memory/cognitive tests which have qualified him although “passing the test” is not the term I’d use exactly, at least not for the second test in which the cut off number had to do with having too much memory. Ralph evidently “passed” with flying colors because his memory score was very low. I have to say when the nurse whispered the news to me, my heart sank a little.

Now we are waiting for Merck to look at the scores before scheduling some physical tests. If Ralph makes it through through those, he will begin taking the extra pill with his Namenda and Donepezil daily. There is a one-third chance or receiving a placebo, a one-third chance of receiving a lowish dosage of the medication, and a one-third chance of receiving a higher dosage. I will be expected to keep track of his progress in some form that has not yet been clarified—I warned the research nurse that I may be travelling some in January after my daughter gives birth, but she said that would not be a problem.

Once Ralph starts the pill, we will meet every two months with medical personnel, including his neurologist, a dermatologist and the research nurse, for the next two years. When the two years are up, if he’s been taking a placebo, Ralph will then receive the higher dosage of the actual medication; otherwise he will continue on the dosage he started with.

I see no downside (except, if I am honest, the extra effort required on my part) and plenty of pluses. Because we are entering the study late, there is plenty of knowledge about side effects—minor and rare. The frequent visits to Emory are a great excuse to get Ralph out of the house and into the world. Plus he will be receiving more detailed health check ups on a more frequent basis. We will no doubt have a better sense of where he is on the continuum than we do now.

And, although he says he doesn’t care, the idea of doing something useful for others, of being part of a cause larger than himself, will give him a sense of purpose; even at Emory the other day I saw the shift from anxiety (which may have caused his low memory score) to energetic good cheer as he interacted with staff.

And if the medication makes a noticeable difference in Ralph’s condition, well that would be great too. Fingers crossed.