December 31, 1999 12:00 PM

It begins with a forgotten name or number, a fleeting disorientation. But Alzheimer’s disease ultimately annihilates mind, body and spirit. It has quelled Ronald Reagan’s buoyance, it robbed Rita Hayworth’s glamor, and it has destroyed millions of less celebrated lives. For a dozen years scientists have searched for the neurological trigger of Alzheimer’s, believing that the best way to prevent or slow its progress is to attack the source. Last October, Berlin-born molecular biologist Martin Citron, 35, hit pay dirt: After two years of painstaking experimentation at Amgen, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., biotechnology firm, he and his research group—including his wife, Anja Leona Biere—isolated one of the enzymes that sets the disease in motion. Explains Citron: “What everybody’s been looking for are molecular scissors”—the enzymes that cut open a certain protein in the brain, releasing toxic fragments, called A-betas, that destroy brain tissue. Citron’s finding drew immediate acclaim. ” ‘This is a significant discovery,” says Dr. Sangram Sisodia, chairman of the department of neurobiology, pharmacology and physiology at the University of Chicago, who likens it to the detection of the protease, or enzyme, necessary to produce HTV. As a result, “now there are dragoon the market [protease inhibitors] for AIDS,” he says. As with AIDS, it will take time to develop an Alzheimer’s drag, “but if we have one available in 10 years,” says Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, “that’s still fantastic.” Those whose lives have been touched by the disease were even more celebratory. “It’s an amazing breakthrough,” says Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, daughter of Rita Hayworth (who died in 1987) and a prominent fund-raiser for Alzheimer’s research. “It will lead to new treatments and, hopefully, a cure.” Citron, who earned a doctorate from Berlin’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics before coming to the U.S. in 1992, has had no personal brush with the disease. But he can understand the out-cry. “Some of our team have family members with! Alzheimer’s,” he says. “So there was incredible motivation.” Still, when the great moment came, there were no cries of “Eureka!” no high-fives, not even a beer or two at the local pub. “No, we didn’t do any of that,” he says. “When we thought we had it, we just decided to work harder.”

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