Rae Lyn Burke was driving to work in Menlo Park, Calif., when it happened -- she realized she couldn't do math anymore.
A career scientist who'd worked at many biotech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, Burke was used to doing simple math problems in her head while behind the wheel. It was a relaxing habit.
But that day four years ago, she couldn't remember how to do multiplication. And she panicked. She'd been a researcher long enough to know almost immediately what was wrong: She had Alzheimer's disease.
"I'd seen patients with it. I'd seen them develop more symptoms," said Burke, 63, sitting in her kitchen. "I knew what it looked like, and it frightened me."
She was formally diagnosed a year later, in August 2008. Burke had to give up her research and leave her job at SRI International, where she'd led the vaccine development department for six years.
Since then, she's launched a new era in her scientific career: as a patient advocate and a test subject. In fact, she's a patient in a clinical trial testing the very vaccine to treat Alzheimer's that she helped develop more than a decade ago.
"Life is full of ironies," Burke said with a small smile.
"I was devastated with my diagnosis," she said. "You think, 'This is the end. What can I do now?' " And then she added, her voice strong and firm: "But there are a lot of opportunities. I have so much energy, and I want to be doing something useful."
Burke is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She gets flustered when she tries to remember dates and other numbers, and she loses track of the details when she makes coffee, but her memory is sharp when it comes to her research.
She always wanted to be a scientist. As a child, she read about Marie Curie and thought, "Yes, I want to do this," she said.
At her first job, with Chiron Corp. in Emeryville, Calif., she worked on a hepatitis B vaccine. That started her career in vaccine development.
She eventually struck out on her own, contracting her work to various labs. In the late '90s, she joined researchers at Elan Corp. who were working on a vaccine that potentially could be used to treat Alzheimer's disease.
The therapy involves a monoclonal antibody called bapineuzumab, which attaches itself to the plaque that builds up in Alzheimer's patients' brains and is believed to be a main cause of the disease. Monoclonal antibodies are small molecules that cling to specific body cells, allowing those cells to be carried away by the immune system.
Burke worked on some of the initial research into bapineuzumab -- her area of expertise was in adjuvants, designed to make the antibody stronger and more effective. She left the project when Wyeth purchased Elan.
But she paid attention as the project moved into clinical trials. She knew of the setbacks -- a stronger version of the vaccine caused meningitis, a deadly brain inflammation, in a small number of patients -- and of small successes. If the drug therapy is successful, it could significantly slow the dementia associated with Alzheimer's.
Shortly after she was diagnosed, Burke visited some of the Bay Area's top Alzheimer's researchers -- many of them friends and former co-workers -- to seek advice about treatment and research.
"What I say to Rae Lyn -- what I want her to know -- is that my colleagues and I are not going to rest until something better is available for the people facing this now," said Dr. Lennart Mucke, director of the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease, who helped Burke decide which clinical trial to enroll in.
Joining a trial was something she could do, Burke said, to possibly help herself, and to continue contributing to the field.
"What we need is more people like her being active," said Bill Fisher, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California. "... When you see someone like her, who was hard at work using her mind to solve very difficult issues, that ... really puts a face on the issue."
Burke has been in the trial for almost two years, and should find out shortly whether she's been receiving the active drug or a placebo. If she's on the placebo, she intends to switch to the active drug as soon as possible.
She hopes that she can be seen as a role model for other patients -- encourage them to consider clinical trials and actively participate in the research. There currently are more than 5 million Americans with the disease, and there is no cure and no significantly effective treatment.
"People need to know the magnitude of the problem," Burke said. "... It is solvable. It's just molecular biology. We can do this."