Medical researchers have achieved a breakthrough in the long hunt for a treatment of Alzheimer’s disease with recent clinical trials of a new drug proving it can be effective in slowing down the degenerative brain condition’s onslaught. After decades of research and billions of pounds of investment, a first effective treatment is a hugely welcome development that doctors have hailed as a ‘turning point’ in the battle with dementia.
To add a further dramatic twist to the tale, the drug developed by Biogen, called aducanumab, represents a significant reversal with it having earlier failed other trials. The latest analysis was, however, bigger, involving more than 3000 people, and also saw the dose increased. It was found that the higher dose resulted in early onset Alzheimer’s patients showing a 25% lower decline in their mental abilities over an 18-month period compared to those given a placebo. There was also a corresponding reduction of a toxin found in brains called amyloid beta, that has long been suspected as linked to forms of dementia.
Some experts have, however, urged for caution, pointing out that the positive findings were derived from one subset of patients – an approach that runs the risk of producing false positives. That didn’t stop an enthusiastic statement from Biogen chief executive Michel Vounatsos, that he hoped the drug will represent “the first therapy to reduce the clinical decline of Alzheimer’s disease”.
Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Research UK, commented on the development:
“People affected by Alzheimer’s have waited a long time for a life-changing new treatment and this exciting announcement offers new hope that one could be in sight.”
James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, was a little more reserved but still hopeful. He cautioned that more data was needed but if the same findings could be replicated over further clinical trials, the drug had “the potential to be a transformative discovery”.
It’s a shot in the arm when it comes to biotech and pharmaceuticals companies continuing to fund research into Alzheimer’s and dementia treatments. While recent developments in our understanding of how the human brain works, accelerated by the advent of big data and AI-fuelled research, have offered some strong suspicions on the link to amyloid beta, a string of recent failures to verify the efficacy of drugs being developed has seen some companies withdraw from the field entirely and other reduce funding. Doubts as to whether the approach of targeting amyloid beta was the right one had begun to creep in.
Biogen’s trials now suggest that the key may be to attack amyloid beta before it has built up to dangerous, possibly irreversible, levels. If this proves correct, the ultimate goal will be to delay the disease to such an extent that people never suffer its effects.
After Biogen’s announcement the company’s value leapt nearly $18 billion with investors betting that that the US Food and Drug Administration will give the treatment the go ahead.