PROVO -- Alzheimer's kills. First, it eats the minds of its victims, leaving them with nothing more than the scraps of memories. Then, when there's nearly nothing left, it takes the sufferer's life.
But new research from Brigham Young University and several other universities shows how researchers are fighting back to kill the common disease.
The study argues that people with a rare variant of a gene are significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease at some point in their lives. It relied on genetic information from more than 25,000 people and was a collaboration between BYU, University College London, Washington University and the National Institutes of Health, among other institutions.
At BYU, geneticist John Keoni Kauwe explained that the gene in question -- officially called TREM2 -- normally regulates immune system responses in the brain. When it gets damaged, it may increase a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease "between two and sixfold."
"It has just huge effects on risk," Kauwe added.
Kauwe explained the concept by comparing genetics to a new recipe book that might get ruined if actually used in the kitchen. Rather than mess up the book, he pointed out, a chef might make a photocopy.
"DNA is made into RNA, which is kind of like taking a nice photo copy of your recipe book," he said.
The RNA then gets made into a protein, Kauwe said, which is like the final cake the cook might have made from the original recipe. Except that in some cases, a person's genes produce an "Alzheimer's cake," or a set of genes with a variant that dramatically increases risk of developing the disease.
"Some people carry a version of this gene that doesn't work very well," he said.
According to Kauwe, knowing about the gene should make it easier and more accurate to predict if a person is likely to get Alzheimer's disease. He said the variant gene is present in about 1 percent of Alzheimer's cases, which means a lot of actual people with the disease.
"We just tripled the number of people that could be treated with therapeutics," he explained.
Biology doctoral candidate Perry Ridge, who is studying bioinformatics and genetics at BYU, further explained that Alzheimer's sufferers often experience brain damage for as long as 20 or 30 years before they actually show symptoms. Once the symptoms do surface, he added, treatment becomes tricky.
"It's widely believed that once a person is symptomatic it's already too late," Ridge said.
The research he and Kauwe helped compile should go a long way to solving that problem, at least for some people, because someday it could allow physicians to diagnose the disease before it decimates the brain. As a result, treatments could be more effective for some sufferers.
Ridge said his role in the study was analyzing nearly 50 terabytes of information made up of 215 whole human genomes. Ridge specifically had to compare data streams and mentioned that roughly one quarter of the data for the study came from BYU. When he heard from other researchers in England that the data was linking the gene variant to Alzheimer's he was excited.
"We were just blown away," Ridge recalled. "It's a tremendous discovery."
Kauwe was similarly excited and said drug companies are developing drugs that should help people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's earlier. He also said that simply knowing more about the disease should lead to better treatments. Kauwe added that data from Utah State University was integral to the study.
The study -- called "TREM2 Variants in Alzheimer's Disease" -- was published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.