New year, new drug to treat Alzheimer’s approved by FDA

This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug to treat those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The approval of lecanemab was welcomed by the Alzheimer’s Association, who urged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to cover the cost for its members. Some members of the medical community have a more guarded view of this latest Alzheimer’s treatment, encouraging families to talk to their providers to understand the benefits and risks.

Here are some facts to know about lecanemab:

  • The drug, made by Eisai in collaboration with Biogen, is for those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or mild dementia stage of disease and confirmed presence of amyloid beta pathology, according to the FDA.
  • In a study cited by the FDA, those who took the drug experienced a statistically significant reduction in brain amyloid plaque versus those in the placebo group. While the connection between the presence of amyloid plaque in the brain and Alzheimer’s is still up for scientific debate, the study also showed that lecanemab resulted in moderately less decline on measures of cognition and function than taking a placebo.
  • There are potentially serious side effects that need to be considered before beginning the medication. In addition to infusion reactions, there were reports of brain swelling and bleeding (what the drugmakers call ARIA: amyloid related imaging abnormalities.) Three deaths of those in the study have been potentially linked to lecanemab.
  • The drug costs $26,500 per patient annually. As stated above, CMS has not approved payment for the new drug yet, meaning that only those who can afford to pay for it out of pocket will have access to the treatment for now. The Alzheimer’s Association has formally requested that CMS “remove the requirement that Medicare beneficiaries be enrolled in a research study in order to receive coverage of FDA-approved Alzheimer’s treatments.”
  • What you should ask your doctor: Before starting lecanemab, it is advisable to get genetic testing to determine whether the patient has the APOE4 gene, because the study showed that ARIA events were more common in those with that gene. Those on blood thinners should also talk to their doctor about increased risks.

A doctor interviewed by CNN said that lecanemab is another tool that he can add to his toolbox for treating Alzheimer’s disease. Families considering the drug for their loved one should understand that overall the drug’s benefits were modest and weigh that benefit to the potentially serious risks of taking the drug. For some families, the potential to slow down the cognitive decline of their loved ones will be worth that risk.

Just like with cancer, we all wish for a miracle drug or other form of treatment that would offer an instant and complete cure for Alzheimer’s. The reality is more like taking baby steps in the treatment development process, but those small steps can grow into better care and results over time.

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