How much more effective would Alzheimer's medications be if they could travel directly into the brain? Medtronic is hoping to find out, and the Fridley-based med-tech giant is looking for partners from the pharmaceutical industry to help.

In the same way that Medtronic is working with Eli Lilly & Co. on research into treatment for Parkinson's disease, Medtronic officials say they also are ready to reach out to drug companies developing medications to combat Alzheimer's. Lisa Shafer, director of Medtronic's Central Nervous System drug therapy research and development, said she believes Medtronic's implantable pump technology could help those medications become more effective and have fewer side effects.

Shafer said less than 1 percent of intravenous drugs are able to cross what is called the blood-brain barrier, a layer of protection in the vessels within the brain. But if Alzheimer's drugs could be administered directly to the brain -- actually, to the fluid-filled ventricles within the brain -- 100 percent of the drug could reach its intended target.

That could mean tenfold to hundredfold lower doses, and fewer side effects, than with drugs taken orally or intravenously, Shafer said. And that could save money, too. Medtronic has done what is called "pre-clinical" work. "Theoretically, we know it should work, based on the animal models," she said.

Now, Medtronic wants to partner with drug companies to take its research and testing further, Shafer said.

"We are device experts, but we are not bio-pharmaceutical experts," she said. "We want to stick to what we are good at and partner with bio-pharma to give their drugs new life."

The technology itself is not new. Implantable, programmable Medtronic pumps have been delivering drugs into the space that surrounds the spinal cord for more than 20 years to relieve pain and spasticity.

In April of last year, Medtronic announced its partnership with Eli Lilly to treat Parkinson's. The treatment combines a drug developed by Eli Lilly with a small Medtronic pump that sends the drug directly to the patient's brain. The hope is that the drug will treat the symptoms of Parkinson's -- the tremors, balance problems and muscular stiffness -- and potentially slow the progression of the disease, officials said.

The idea now would be to take that same type of technology, in which a pump implanted in the abdomen delivers medication via a catheter beneath the skin, to bring different drugs to "higher brain centers," Shafer said.

Medtronic has just started looking for drug company partners, she said. Much work remains to be done. But in a telephone interview, she sounded excited to begin this potential next chapter of Medtronic's business.

"We have to do very careful science," Shafer said. "We have been doing research for years to make sure we are in the right position to attract a pharmaceutical partner. Our timing is now."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428