GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new Alzheimer’s drug has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, sparking hope among patients and their families that they will have more time.
Lacanemab, otherwise known as Leqembi, appears to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s, according to the FDA.
It’s welcome news for many people who have lost loved ones to the disease, including Jean Barnas, program director of the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter.
“Had she drug been around when she was first diagnosed, she’d have more time with my kids or her grandkids,” said Jean Barnas.
Marlene McKian lost her mother in 2011 after a dementia diagnosis.
“She was just my No. 1 go-to person and it was really hard for us when she was diagnosed,” said McKian, who is on the Grand Rapids Walk to End Alzheimer’s committee. “If she could’ve just had even one more day, one more moment of clarity, just any good day, it would have been, I think, very beneficial to have had anything at that point.”
Scientists have been working on a cure for years. Now, they say they are closer than ever.
“I was actually at the conference in San Francisco in early December where the first results were presented,” said David Morgan, professor of translational neuroscience at Michigan State University. “I can tell you that the mood at that conference was extremely high.”
Until now, medication only treated the symptoms, but doctors say Leqembi treats the underlying cause of the disease.
“What the antibodies do is they bind to this material in your brain that builds up and causes Alzheimer’s, and it’s called amyloid. And when it binds that, it essentially instructs the immune system to come in and get rid of this,” Morgan said.
“This is a infusion treatment, so it’s not just an oral medication that you take every morning with your breakfast. This is a medication that is delivered intravenously in an outpatient setting. Patients may receive this once a month or perhaps twice a month,” Dr. Hashan Fernando, a clinical neuropsychologist at Corewell Health, explained.
He said any patients considering the drug should be weigh the risks of potential side effects, the most serious of which was small brain bleeds or brain swelling. About 13% of patients in the clinical trail saw that side effect.
“Most of the patients who did experience this actually recovered over the course of several months with no lasting impact,” Fernando said.
The brain bleeds, called aria, can be detected via MRI. Morgan said a gradual ramping up of Leqembi can help reduce the risk of the side effect.
“When we detect that, what we do is we stopped giving people that drug for a while. And often it can be resumed and the aria does not come back again. We want to be able to arrest the disease progression completely and that may happen after three or four years of this treatment,” Morgan said.
Other side effects included a negative reaction to the infusion, which generally happens during the appointment when it is administered, Fernando said. Others experienced headaches.
“So obviously we want to consider these risks in the context of medical history,” Fernando said. “So if you have any previous risk factors in your medical history, this should require careful discussion with your doctor. “
Three patients in the trial died, though it’s unclear what caused the deaths.
Many people are hopeful that the new drug is the start of a new era of treatment.
“I think it’s going to open a lot of doors, hopefully, for other new drugs to kind of start showing up and hopefully this gets us on the right track for — I don’t want to get too excited — but for a cure of some sort,” McKian said.
“But what’s going to happen is it will become the standard of care and then the newer drugs that we’ve been working on — and there’s 100 of them — will be added to that,” Morgan said. “So any further benefits we get from other medications will be on top of what we’re able to achieve with these antibody drugs against amyloid.”
Because of the accelerated approval on this drug, it may not be covered for Medicare patients. The Alzheimer’s Association has made a formal request asking to lower the cost of the drug so it can be accessible to more people.