Following years of research seeking a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, including 123 drugs that ultimately came to nothing, experts in the field now say they are growing increasingly hopeful an effective treatment is on the horizon.
Both Eli Lilly and Company and Biogen have produced new experimental drugs that show promise in slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s. Patients, doctors, and investors are all watching closely. The drugs are still in the early phases of development, and either or both could be a disappointment. But they reflect a growth in understanding of how the brain changes with Alzheimer’s, allowing new approaches to intervention.
Steven Ferris directs the Alzheimer’s clinical trials program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. He has been active in Alzheimer’s research for forty years. He says:
The recurring platitude, which has been going on forever is “Gee, we’re about five years away from a really effective treatment.” It would be premature to say we’ve turned the corner, but there’s a lot going on in the pipeline that is quite promising.
Lilly’s new drug, solanezumab, demonstrated some benefit in 2012, for patients with a mild form of the disease. This March, Biogen’s aducanumab became the first of the experimental drugs to slow the advance of the disease in patients with mild Alzheimer’s. Both drugs act by blocking beta amyloid, the protein which causes the toxic brain plaques that characterize the progressive brain disease.
An anti-inflammation drug called azeliragon was developed then abandoned some years ago by Pfizer, after it proved ineffective following 12 months of study. Pfizer’s tiny partner, TransTech Pharma, continue to follow patients who were treated with the drug, and found that cognition actually did improve after 18 months. TransTech has changed its name to vTv Therapeutics, and began a late-stage study of azeliragon this past April.
According to Dr. Reisa Sperling, director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research at Harvard Medical School, “This year is different because multiple mechanisms are being explored and there’s a tremendous revival of faith in the anti-amyloid approach.” She hopes for the development of several drugs that work in different ways, so they can be used together as “a 1-2-3 punch” against the disease. Similar combination treatments are currently used in the treatment of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, things Sperling is right about the multi-prong approach. He recently said, “Another 5 to 8 years down the road, even before symptoms appear, we will be treating with a cocktail of therapies.”
Five million Americans currently suffer from the disease, and the Alzheimer’s Association anticipates as many as 28 million will be afflicted by 2040. If the predictions are correct, and if we don’t find an effective treatment, Alzheimer’s patients will then account for 25 percent of U.S. Medicare spending.