Can this new drug break the inevitability of Alzheimer's?

It is very common for us to hear about some promising drug that has been described as effective in battling against Alzheimer’s. But all optimism dashed away when that drug failed to live up to expectations in clinical trials.

Recently, a new therapy is fueling hopes and results are prompting scientists to describe it as best news they have seen for treating this deadly disease in 25 years. A new drug called aducanumab is developed and tested by biotech firm Biogen. Its clinical trials showed that drug helped to remove beta amyloid, a sticky plaque that builds up in the brain and lead to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Last month, journal Nature reported the results of phase one of the study that included 165 early stage Alzheimer’s patients. With this level of disease, patients have trouble remembering conversations, using things around the house or concentrating. What makes Alzhemier’s most devastating is its inevitability; with time the symptoms of Alzhemier’s always continue to worsen.

Clinical trials showed that patients who receiving highest doses of the under trial drug every month over the course of a year have greatest decrease in the amount of amyloid plaque in their brains. But the finding that injects optimism in the field is the degree to which worsening of memory loss is slowed in patients taking the drug.

"This is the first antibody tested where the people who had the greatest removal of amyloid from their brains also saw the greatest stabilization of their clinical decline," said Dr. Adam Boxer, professor of neurology at the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. "That's the impressive part."

Plaque formation in brain cells

If further clinical testing provides the same or better results, the drug could be approved on the market within five years. Yet these results are far from conclusive, they have strengthened the belief in amyloid theory that states the reduction of amyloid in the brain can slow the progression of Alzheimer's.

Current FDA approved drugs only treat symptoms of the disease and give patients a mild improvement. Therefore, researchers are turning their attention to disease-modifying prevention drugs. If drugs like aducanumab can potentially slow Alzheimer’s symptoms from worsening, newer therapies being worked on today are aimed at stopping them before even they start.

By treating people at risk for Alzhemier’s before symptoms appear, it is hoped we can potentially prevent or even delay the onset of memory loss and other hallmarks of the disease.

"We want to run out the clock with Alzheimer's," said James Hendrix, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer's Association. "The disease most commonly strikes people over the age of 65, so if we could delay the onset of the worst of the symptoms long enough, people will die of something else. But when they do die, they will do so with their memories intact."

Though this research sounds very optimistic, yet there is much that’s unknown. Certain side effects including brain swelling and in some cases brain bleeding were observed in patients taken high doses of the drug. Given the small scale of study, it is hard to draw conclusions about safety and efficacy of the drug in phase one trials.

Still, there's reason to be hopeful, scientists believe. "I think the efficacy of this drug in clearing [amyloid] plaque is very significant for patients with Alzheimer's," said Dr. Marc Diamond, founding director of the Center for Alzheimer's and Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Texas Southwestern.

Adds Dr. Boxer: "If the same or very similar results are obtained [with phase three], then that would be even more exciting. That would suggest that this drug really works." And that's the best news Alzheimer's patients have had in a long time.

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