It was news many people have been desperately hoping for — a new drug to slow the progression of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
The recent announcement from the company Biogen Inc. quickly spread across social media. The company’s stock price surged.
The intense interest in the announcement is underscored by the number of people affected by the disease.
Alzheimer’s ranks as the fourth leading cause of death in Snohomish County, taking the lives of 375 people last year. Some 110,000 people in Washington are living with the disease. That number is expected to jump 27 percent — to 140,000 — by 2025, according to an Alzheimer’s Association report.
But as with any announcement regarding a new medication, the question is, how much of the interest in what is being characterized as a potentially important new Alzheimer’s drug is hope versus hype?
In part, that’s because Biogen announced in March that it was discontinuing tests of the drug when initial analysis showed it wasn’t that effective.
Last month, the company reversed course, saying that a closer analysis of people using high doses of the drug showed it could slow cognitive decline among people with early-stage Alzheimer’s.
The company is seeking federal approval from the Food and Drug Administration to allow patients to be treated with the medication.
“I think it gives people hope,” said Carrie McBride, spokeswoman for the Washington state chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s been about 15 years since a drug like this has been submitted to the FDA for approval.”
The drugs now on the market have had only moderate effectiveness, showing results only in some people and only for a short time, she said.
Federal approval to allow patients to be treated with the new drug also could open the door for other, more advanced therapies, she said. “This is really good news overall in the scientific and research communities,” McBride said.
Others, though, are raising questions about just how much benefit patients would receive.
A biotech podcast by STAT, a media company affiliated with the Boston Globe that covers health, medicine and scientific advances, said that it’s unclear if the FDA will approve the company’s request or ask for more tests to measure its effectiveness.
Journalist Sharon Begley noted in the podcast that it generally takes three years for Alzheimer’s to progress from a mild to moderate disease. “This would extend that to four years,” she said.
Biogen’s drug, called Aducanumab, is aimed at helping the body clear harmful plaques from the brain.
Dr. Eric Larson, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, said that Biogen’s announcement is controversial among experts studying Alzheimer’s disease.
That’s in part because it’s very unusual for a drug to go forward after a test has failed, he said. “This is a condition that everybody hopes for — a single drug, a magic bullet,” Larson said.
Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease, caused by more than one problem, Larson said.
The plaques in the brain — which the Biogen drug seeks to attack — disrupts the functioning of neurons, the brain’s messenger service.
But there are three other problems that occur in the brain also associated with the disease, he said.
The upside to the years of attention on finding treatments for Alzheimer’s is that far more money is being spent on research, he said.
“How likely is it that a single drug will do what we want it to do — which is make it go away? I’m skeptical that this single drug will turn the tide,” Larson said. “But I sure hope there’s something like that someday.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The state chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association is at 19031 33rd Ave. W. No. 301, Lynnwood. Call 206-363-5500 or go to www.alz.org/alzwa for more information. Or contact the organization’s 24-hour helpline at 800-272-3900.
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