Studying Alzheimer’s Disease in Colombia

A cross-cultural collaboration fuels the start of a once-in-a-lifetime study for the prevention of Alzheimer’s.

For years, Colombian neurologist Francisco Lopera collected names and examined brains. He traveled the rocky roads around Medellín with medical assistants, searching for clues in the ancestry and symptoms of people who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He discovered that these people, who could be traced to a common ancestor, shared a rare genetic mutation that meant they would almost certainly develop Alzheimer’s disease while they were relatively young, in their forties and fifties. Lopera set his sights on finding a treatment that might be able to help not only those afflicted families in Colombia, but potentially people with Alzheimer’s around the world.

In the U.S., two physicians at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, Dr. Eric Reiman and Dr. Pierre Tariot, were also on a mission to find treatments for Alzheimer’s. In 2009, they began to champion the radical idea that their research should focus on prevention. But conducting a prevention study would be a complex undertaking that had never been attempted before. To do it, the physicians would need to find a unique group of people and a specific molecule.

An overlook in Medellín, Colombia, where a landmark study is investigating the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Photo from the Genentech archives.

They came across Dr. Lopera and the people in Colombia he had documented, who were willing to enroll in a research trial as healthy adults with the hope that a treatment would delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s. With that piece of the puzzle in place, Drs. Reiman and Tariot set out to find an appropriate molecule for the trial, spending years talking with scientists at pharmaceutical companies, and considering the potential efficacy and the safety of many molecules.

In September of 2011, after discussions with several pharmaceutical companies for up to two years, the physicians were nearing a final decision on the molecule, and the partner, for the trial. A casual conversation at the end of an Alzheimer’s research meeting gave Genentech the opportunity to put its investigational molecule, crenezumab, up for consideration at the last minute.

By December 1, 2011, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute made their decision...

As of 2022, the Alzheimer’s prevention trial, which was also supported by the National Institutes of Health, has concluded. Dr. Reiman said, “The study, which was supported by the National Institute on Aging, generous philanthropic contributions to Banner Alzheimer’s Foundation, and Genentech, has generated a wealth of data that will advance the early detection, tracking and study of Alzheimer’s disease and inform the design of future Alzheimer’s prevention trials.”

Francisco Lopera, M.D.

Professor, University of Antioquia, Colombia

Robert Paul*, M.D., Ph.D.

Therapeutic Area Lead for Neuro Early Clinical Development, Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED)

Eric Reiman, M.D.

Executive Director, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute

Shehnaaz Suliman*, M.D.

Vice President, Roche Partnering
Formerly Genentech Research and Early Development (gRED)

Pierre Tariot, M.D.

Director, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute

Audio by Megan Jones.
*Robert Paul and Shehnaaz Suliman no longer work at Genentech but did at the time of the story.

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