A curious thing happened to me on my way to finding the cure for Alzheimer’s all on my own: I gained more respect for drug research companies, for neurologists, for folks who are obsessed with theories and practically live in their labs trying to prove their theories. More specifically, I gained greater respect for drug companies that fail colossally, then dust themselves off and try again.

After Eli Lilly revealed that their latest trials of the Alzheimer’s drug semagacestat resulted in greater dementia in their subjects, the response from the public was overwhelmingly angry. Adding to Lilly’s revelation, a recent report on Alzheimer’s drug company stocks by NeuroInvestment painted a bleak picture of the effectiveness of Alzheimer’s drug development across the board, giving the impression that research in the field is pretty much a crap shoot.

If you follow the very well-attended Alzheimer’s Reading Room online, you will see an interesting reaction to these reports. Richard Taylor (who suffers from Alzheimer’s) is one of many who feel crushed and devalued by the repeated failures of Alzheimer’s drug trials. Imagine trying to live with hope, then seeing over and over again that no matter how much money and time is spent on Alzheimer’s research, reality refuses to sustain any hope.

No matter the good intentions, Alzheimer’s research seems a recipe for failure.

This week I got a wee taste of what things might look like from the inside of these drug companies. For the past few years, I’ve been building a theory of Alzheimer’s of my own and keeping my eyes peeled for evidence that would support my suspicions. More recently, I decided to take a serious look at my hunch and see if a) I could gather legitimate scientific data that would shed light on my “theory,” and, b) see if this data had any kind of flow to it—if it had a “storyboard.”

My motives were twofold: I like to discover truths; and I very much want to avoid getting Alzheimer’s (like my mother). Curiosity and Fear fed my research. When I finally thought I had an airtight storyboard, excitement at the implications led to action: I shot off my “storyboard” to a leading researcher in the field.

Sobriety set in the next day. I took another look at what I’d written, then re-checked my sources and found not just one, but several really weak extrapolations in my thinking, and one particularly week substantiation of the evidence. I should have waited. I should have spent another eight weeks (I know, right?) researching before putting it out there and risking embarrassment.

But think about it: the possibility of being right on something so devastatingly urgent will make people take risks. And I’m not talking only about the drug companies; people signing up for drug trials are equally taking risks, knowing that the outcome is not certain at all. When you consider that it takes years and years and years to move inches in the direction of a safe and effective drug release (such as the six years it took to find how a fine-tuned alternate to semagacestat About a decade ago, Dr. Greengard and his postdocoral students made their first discovery on the path to finding the new protein. They got a hint that certain types of pharmaceuticals might block beta amyloid. So they did an extensive screen of pharmaceuticals that met their criteria and found that one of them, Gleevec, worked. It completely stopped beta amyloid production. That was exciting, until Dr. Greengard discovered that Gleevec was pumped out of the brain. Still, he found that if he infused Gleevec directly into the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s genes, beta amyloid went away. ‘We spent the next six years or so trying to figure out how Gleevec worked’ on gamma secretase, Dr. Greengard said. He knew, though, that he was on to something important.functioned in mice), the urgency for a cure leads all sides to gamble on a shortcut. And we’re not interested in companies that aim to keep the Alzheimer’s victim home “three months longer.” We want a cure.

Colossal goals risk colossal failures.

Can you just imagine what went through the minds and guts of Lilly’s leaders when they realized they’d failed? When they had to go out there and tell their shareholders of their failure?

“Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that our drug was more effective than the placebo…”

Of course drug companies are going to be motivated by the excitement of financial gain. But they’re also going to be motivated by the fear of getting it wrong. They know what failure can do to their reputations and their ability to fund further research.

Today, Indystar.com published a very thoughtful article on Eli Lilly’s semagacestat trial failure. You won’t have to wonder what it was like behind the scenes at Eli Lilly—the article gives you a pretty well-rounded look. You also won’t have to wonder what someone’s response would be after being given the drug and having it backfire. From the wife of one participant:

“I just hope the researchers dig their heels in and keep trying to find a cure,” Dianne said. “That’s the important thing.”

I know there’s the whole layer of marketing that plants diseases into people’s conciousness so drug companies can make money off their fears. For this there is a solution: TiVo (and the advice of a good doctor).

But we shouldn’t assume that everyone researching Alzheimer’s has only one goal in mind—to get into our pockets with random, pointless medications. Any rational company would avoid this particular field: the risk of failure is pretty much guaranteed.

I hope we can learn from Eli Lilly and other Alzheimer’s research companies to risk failure; to work even harder; to join forces in finding a cure.