Luke O’Neill: ‘Hope is high’ for Alzheimer’s cure

More than 64,000 people have Alzheimer's in Ireland.
Robert Kindregan
Robert Kindregan

12.43 12 Mar 2024

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Luke O’Neill: ‘Hope is high’ f...

Luke O’Neill: ‘Hope is high’ for Alzheimer’s cure

Robert Kindregan
Robert Kindregan

12.43 12 Mar 2024

Share this article

‘Hope is high’ for an Alzheimer’s cure after fresh breakthroughs in the treatment of the disease, according to Professor Luke O’Neill.

The US is expected to approve the experimental treatment donanemab in the coming months.

Clinical tests from drug-maker Eli Lily suggest the treatment can slow down the effects of Alzheimer’s by around one-third.


Up to now, treatments for the condition have been limited – with more than 64,000 people living with Alzheimer’s in Ireland.

Speaking at a special live broadcast of The Pat Kenny Show marking the 30th anniversary of the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland’s Tea Day fundraiser, Prof O’Neill said the new treatment is positive but its side effects are concerning.

“The problem is there are side effects and a certain number of people are getting little bleeds in their brains,” he said.

“It can be managed, but it is a concern.

“I was talking to the people who developed the drug a couple of weeks ago and while they are thrilled to get it on the market, they said this could be a concern and are working hard to stop this side effect.”

Billion-dollar question

The Trinity Professor said finding a cure is the “billion-dollar question” but there is hope.

“Hope is high because of breakthroughs that have happened,” he said.

“Even though we have only been able to slow it down by a third, we are heading in the right direction.

“Billions are going to be made from these drugs because Alzheimer’s is very common and very debilitating so any progress is going to be useful to patients.”

Unknown cause

Professor O’Neill said the big problem is “we still don’t know what’s causing it”.

“If we knew the cause and got into the source you might stop Alzheimer’s developing in the first place but it's proving difficult to crack,” he said.

“It happens when a protein called amyloid, a normal protein in all our brains, starts to form clumps in your hippocampus – the part of the brain that controls memory.

“For some reason, it destroys the hippocampus but we don’t know what makes this protein clump together.”


The Trinity Professor said some people carry ‘at risk’ genes more commonly associated with the disease.

“With the aggressive forms, there is more evidence of genetics there,” he said.

“Years ago, we thought aluminium was a risk for Alzheimer’s, but it didn’t pan out in the end.

“But there is probably some infection or some toxin and if you are unlucky, you carry the wrong gene and get exposed to the wrong thing – then Alzheimer’s can begin to develop.”

Professor O’Neill said some companies are “currently exploring” the possibility of developing a vaccine for Alzheimer’s.

You can listen back here:

Main image: Luke O'Neill in the Newstalk studio. 

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