In Gabriel García Márquez‘s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the entire population of imaginary Macondo vilage is stricken with a memory disease. Its symptoms are insomnia followed by such acute memory loss that to fight forgetfulness they hang plaques on every object, spelling out its name and function. “This is a cow, it must be milked every morning to get milk, and milk should be boiled to mix with coffee…” Eventually, however, words themselves cease to have any meaning.
The picturesque little town on the picture above is Yarumal, situated high above the river’s valley in the Antioquia, Colombia. Isolated from the outside world by remoteness and intermittent presence of guerrillas, drug-traffickers, and paramilitaries, this once obscure corner of Colombia has become famous as of late, and all for the wrong reasons. Namely, has the largest population of Alzheimer’s sufferers in the world. A great number of the village’s 5,000 residents have a genetic mutation that predisposes them to Alzheimer’s disease, and most develop the condition by the time they are just 40 years old, some as young as 35.Thus Yarumal is the real Macondo, although memory problems among Yarumal residents began long before Márquez published his novel in 1967 — about 375 years ago to be precise. A November 19, 2015 New Scientist article reported that researchers have traced the source of Alzheimer’s in this small Colombian town to 17th century Spanish conquistador.
But the tragic circumstances also make this community an ideal place to conduct research and test new drugs. The US biotech company Genentech will spend $100 million on a clinical trial of crenezumab, a drug that attacks beta amyloids and prevents them from becoming toxic. The trial began in December 2013 and projected to be completed in seven years. The results are expected to be documented and reported in 2020.
A hundred carriers of the mutant gene will take the drug over five years, another hundred carriers will take a placebo, as will yet another hundred at-risk people who do not have the mutant gene. Double-blind testing suggests that not only patients but also doctors administering the injections wouln’t know who received the drug and who was given a shot of placebo.
It’s the first test of its kind to be carried out on apparently healthy people. Anti-amyloid drugs have been used before, but they have failed because they have been taken by patients already suffering from dementia — in other words, too late. Researchers are optimistic. They can’t be sure it will prevent the disease, but it could delay it for many years, and that’s important.
In the US alone 5.3 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s. Every third person die from Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia. This is one of the 10 most common causes of death in the USA — the only disease that currently can not prevented, cured or slowed down.