The Cure Will Come


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There’s plenty of science—and economics, and social policy, and bioethics—in senior editor Samuel Hughes’s cover story on the University’s broad-scale effort to understand, treat, and mitigate Alzheimer’s disease. But as I read, I kept coming back to the vignette that opens the piece, in which a middle-aged son watches as an elderly parent is lost to the disease, a lifetime of memories wiped away, broken by flashes of horrified awareness: “I never thought it would come to this.” The experience is both heartbreaking and increasingly common, with devastating effects on individuals and the larger society.

John Trojanowski Res’80, who with Virginia Lee WG’84 makes up the husband-and-wife team at the center of the University’s complex web of programs joining together to attack the disease and other neurodegenerative disorders, is eloquent on the human and social costs of Alzheimer’s, which will accelerate even more as the Baby Boomers age into their retirement years. The sobering statistics: 40 to 50 percent of 85-year-olds have Alzheimer’s; absent a cure, that translates into 35 million possible Boomer victims.

Back in 1991, Lee and Trojanowski were the first to discover that the tangles in a brain with Alzheimer’s were formed by tau proteins, now one of the two leading candidates for being the cause of the disease. However, the other proposed agent, beta amyloid peptide, which was discovered earlier, has received the lion’s share of funding for clinical trials and other research over the years—to Trojanowski and Lee’s frustration and, so far, with disappointing results. Penn recently forged an agreement with the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca to work jointly on generating new drugs for Alzheimer’s.

Drug development is key, Trojanowski says. Being able to delay the average age of onset (about 75) by just five years could make a significant dent in the impact of the disease, since many potential sufferers will have died of something else. Given the research advances of the past 20 years, success is only a matter of time, he told Sam—how much time will depend on the sense of urgency and level of funding brought to bear on the problem. “It’s changed so dramatically that I say the cure will come as quickly as the American people want it to come.”

(Besides being brilliant scientists, Trojanowski and Lee also appear to hold the secret for a successful long-term relationship. They met in 1976 and for decades have spent basically all of their time together, at work and at home, and yet remain happily—though by no means always serenely—married.)

Also in this issue, “Penn Fights the Civil War,” by freelancer W. Barksdale Maynard, marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in April with stories—heroic, shameful, and often gruesome—of Penn alumni and faculty involved on both sides of the conflict.

I would not at all suggest that the ugly cap to an otherwise glorious sports season ranks with the ravages of disease or war. Still, it’s clear from frequent contributor Dave Zeitlin C’03’s story, “Almost Perfect,” that, for the members of Penn’s 1970-71 men’s basketball team, their lop-sided defeat in the NCAA regional finals following a blazing 28-0 run still rankles after four decades—though not so much as to dim the fonder memories of camaraderie and competition that preceded the loss.

Finally, in “Passion Play,” novice bridge player and sometime Gazette contributor Barbra Shotel CW’64 tells what it’s like to play “the world’s finest game” with Marty Seligman Gr’67, American Contract Bridge League Diamond Life Master (and a fair hand at psychology, too).

—John Prendergast C’80

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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 2/24/11