MANKATO — Advocates are hailing a newly approved drug designed to slow Alzheimer’s disease progression, saying it could lead more people to seek early screenings.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved aducanumab Monday. The treatment reportedly works by removing amyloid proteins from the brain, which in Alzheimer’s patients clump to form plaque and disrupt brain cell function.
While previously approved drugs helped limit Alzheimer’s symptoms but didn’t slow down progression, this latest approval would give patients their first treatment option for decelerating progression.
The FDA’s approval of the drug this week was thrilling, said Sandi Lubrant, program director for the Mankato & North Mankato ACT on Alzheimer’s advocacy group. She sees it as a step in the right direction toward meeting a 2011 goal set by Congress for developing prevention and treatment options for Alzheimer’s by 2025.
“Seeing something like this happen in 2021 gives me hope that the 2025 goal is on the way,” she said.
Lubrant also hopes news of an effective treatment leads people to be more proactive about their brain health as they age. Many people don’t recognize signs, or avoid following up on them, until they progress into advanced stages.
Now, with a drug available to potentially slow progression, they’ll have more reason to seek out earlier screenings, she said.
“People will want to get a diagnosis earlier and to talk to their providers earlier if they’re having concerns about their brain health. This really shows why early detection and diagnosis is so important.”
A clinical trial on the drug found about a 22% reduction in cognitive decline among people who used it. For people living with Alzheimer’s and their families, it could make meaningful differences in quality of life, said Sue Parriott, CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Minnesota-North Dakota chapter.
“We want more time with our love ones, with our families,” she said. “This will allow that, and that’s really exciting.”
When news of the drug’s approval dropped, Parriott said she could hardly contain her excitement.
“I was literally almost in tears yesterday because this is so powerful,” she said. “For years we were never able to say there’s a medication to slow the progression.”
Studies into the drug will continue despite Monday’s approval. The FDA gave the OK through what’s called an accelerated approval program, making drugs for serious illnesses available early while more studies are conducted.
Basically, the documented benefits of the drug so far outweigh any known risks. Further studies by the drug’s maker, Biogen, will either verify the treatment’s clinical benefits or not — in the latter case the drug would be pulled.
The uncertainty is about whether reducing plaque does indeed slow the disease’s progression. The one trial found it did, while another didn’t find evidence of it.
Accessibility will also be a heavy focus next. The drug would need to be infused on a monthly basis rather than being in pill form.
The hope is the treatment will be accessible to people across the state rather than just in the Twin Cities or other metro areas, Parriott said.
The new treatment could also spur further innovation. Fundraising dollars contribute to research, and this drug is one example of the fruitful results coming from it.
“The science is only going to continue to get better,” Parriott said. “We’ll learn more from people who take this drug, we’ll build upon that and come up with more treatments.”