Were about to find out whether there will be a way anytime soon to slow the course of Alzheimers disease. Results are due within a month from key studies of two drugs that aim to clear the sticky plaque gumming up patients brains.
A pivotal study of a third drug will end later this year, and results from a small, early test of it will be reported next week at an Alzheimers conference in Vancouver.
These three treatments are practically the last men standing in late-stage trials, after more than a decade of failed efforts to develop a drug to halt the mind-robbing disease. Current medicines such as Aricept and Namenda just temporarily ease symptoms. There is no known cure.
Experts say that if these fail, drug companies may pull out of the field in frustration, leaving little hope for the millions of people with the disease. An estimated 35 million people worldwide have dementia, which includes Alzheimers. In the U.S., experts say about 5 million have Alzheimers.
The three treatments being tested are not even drugs in the traditional, chemical sense. They are antibodies – proteins made by the immune system that promote clearance of amyloid, the stuff that forms the plaque.
Its a strategy with a checkered history, and scientists arent even sure that amyloid causes Alzheimers or that removing it will do any good in people who already have symptoms. But there are some hopeful signs they may be on the right track.
Everybody in the field is probably holding their breath that there is something positive to come out of these trials, said Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinics Alzheimers Disease Research Center.
It may not be a home run in terms of improving memory and cognition, but if brain imaging or spinal fluid tests show the drugs are hitting their target, they will be regarded as successes, he said.
William Thies, scientific director of the Alzheimers Association, agreed.
Even if there is just a small effect, that would be a huge finding because that would let you know you had a drug that worked, he said. It then could be tried as a preventive medicine or given earlier in the course of the disease when it may have more influence.
The three drugs and their developers are:
Bapineuzumab by Pfizer Inc. and Johnson & Johnsons Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy unit
Solanezumab by Eli Lilly & Co.
Gammagard, by Baxter International Inc.
All are given as periodic intravenous infusions; some companies are trying to reformulate them so they could be given as shots. If a major study shows that one of the drugs works, there will be a huge effort to make it more convenient and practical, Thies predicted.
The first two on the list are lab-made, single antibodies against amyloid. Gammagard is intravenous immune globulin, or IVIG – multiple, natural antibodies culled from blood. Half a dozen companies already sell IVIG to treat immune system and blood disorders. It takes 130 plasma donations to make enough to treat one patient for a year.
Treating Alzheimers with IVIG would cost $2,000 to $5,000 every two weeks, depending on the patients weight, said Dr. Norman Relkin, head of a memory disorders program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Next week, at the Alzheimers Association International Conference in Canada, Relkin will give a three-year progress report on 16 patients out of the original 24 enrolled in that earlier study.
Jason Marder is among them. The New York City man, who turned 70 on Tuesday, was diagnosed with Alzheimers more than eight years ago.
It was devastating, said his wife, Karin Marder. I thought, Our life is over together as a couple. But in fact it really has not been, and I have to attribute this really to the clinical trial.
In the roughly five years that her husband has taken Gammagard, there has been decline in his health, but it is minimal and the kind of slowing down you might expect from ordinary aging, she said.
Jason Marder said he takes a creative writing class, runs errands for his wife and bikes around the city. As for his disease, I fight it as much as I can, he said. I feel I can handle it.
Its impossible to say how Marder would have fared without the treatment. Some patients decline rapidly, while others not for years.
Studies on the two other drugs already have ended and results are being analyzed. The main outcome is likely to be announced by the companies as soon as it is known, and detailed results are to be presented at scientific conferences in October.