Experts cautiously welcome results of trial of antibody known as aducanumab, which appears to show benefit in patients given it in very earliest stage of disease
A new drug for Alzheimer’s appears to have shown some benefit in people who were given it in the very earliest stage of the disease, say scientists.
Experts were cautious about the results of the trial of an antibody known as aducanumab, which involved just 166 patients. But the dearth of drugs to halt or even slow the progress of dementia – of which Alzheimer’s is the most common type – means that any positive results will be greeted with enthusiasm.
In the trial, conducted primarily to ensure the drug was safe and had no serious side-effects, brain scans showed a reduction of amyloid plaque. Accumulation of amyloid plaques is thought to be one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s.
The higher the dose of drug the patient was given, the greater the reduction. Tests also showed that those people who took the drug had a slower rate of mental decline than those who did not – although the trial was not set up primarily to see whether there was any effect on cognition.
“These are very promising early results, which not only demonstrate the safety of this treatment but also suggest it may hold benefits in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
“While many previous anti-amyloid therapies have failed to meet their goals, these preliminary findings back up research suggesting that treatments targeting amyloid will need to be given early in the disease. Further data from this trial is yet to be reported, and it will be important to see this data as well as results from much larger trials before we can understand how effective this treatment may be.
“Alzheimer’s disease affects half a million people in the UK today, causing untold devastation, yet there are currently no treatments capable of stopping the disease in its tracks. While today’s results are promising, we must continue to invest in research and cast our net wide in the search for new ways to fight the disease.”
The trial results were presented at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases and Related Neurological Disorders in Nice, France. Alfred Sandrock, group senior vice-president and chief medical officer at Biogen Idec, the company that made the drug, announced it would be moving quickly into large-scale trials which will involve hundreds, if not thousands, of people. “Based on these results, we are advancing the aducanumab clinical programme to phase three with plans to initiate enrolment later this year,” he said.
There have been positive results from drug trials before that have then turned out to be short-lived. Some drugs appeared to help people with dementia to think and reason better and even to carry out tasks in their home that they had lost the ability to perform – but then the patient lapsed into a faster decline than before, catching up with those who had never taken the drugs.
There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK but the numbers are expected to rise to 1 million by 2025 and 2 million by 2051. Over 60% of those diagnosed have Alzheimer’s, as did the author Terry Pratchett, who died last week.
Scan of human brain with dementia. Researchers say preliminary findings suggest treatments targeting amyloid will need to be given early in the disease. Photograph: Alamy