Hope for Alzheimer’s Patients and Families

Business Week reports on some new findings in the area of Alzheimer’s research and drug development. While I have great concerns about the aggressiveness of the pharmaceutical industry in many areas, including drugs for the elderly, I am also greatly interested in the prospect of treating Alzheimer’s. Because of advances in medicine, people’s bodies are often holding out longer — not succumbing to heart disease, cancer, and a host of other illnesses. If we can treat this most debilitating ailment of the mind in older people, we will help to ameliorate the crisis of caring for our aging people, since those with able minds to go along with their bodies are more likely to maintain their independence and provide their own self-care for a longer period. From Business Week:

Decoding Alzheimer’s

After a century, promising treatments at last—and whispers of a cure

Francesco Bellini hasn’t been sleeping lately. The charged-up chairman of Neurochem Inc. (NRMX ) is just months away from finding out if a drug developed by his Quebec-based company can actually slow the course of Alzheimer’s disease. A clinical trial of the drug, Alzhemed, will wrap up in January, with results expected in the spring. “The summation of all our work and research for the last 12 years will happen in the next six months,” he says.

Those 12 years have been focused on overcoming one of the toughest challenges in medicine: keeping Alzheimer’s disease from slowly, relentlessly destroying the brain, something no drug has yet done. The data on Alzhemed have been promising but scant. In a 2002 study it stabilized the disease in nine patients over six months, but the small sample left plenty of specialists skeptical. Not Bellini, a scientist-entrepreneur who discovered one of the first effective treatments for aids. He bought a third of Neurochem and took the helm the same year the earlier Alzhemed trial was completed. “I started to feel very good about the drug as soon as I saw what it did for humans,” he says.

Neurochem quickly moved ahead with a costly late-stage trial, enrolling 1,052 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. There is plenty of debate in the Alzheimer’s world over what the results of that trial are likely to be, but a recent follow-up of patients from the previous study found that four were still stable after four years on Alzhemed. In addition, Bellini says every patient who has completed the trial asked to continue the drug—a sign, he says, that it is helping. “I was expecting maybe 30% would ask, but 100%, that’s remarkable.”

It’s not hard to understand why patients would want to continue: They are desperate for hope. Alzheimer’s is a frightening trend for an aging population. One in 10 people over the age of 65 develops the disease. Over age 85, the odds rise to one in two. The diagnosis is an agonizing death sentence, as it takes anywhere from 3 to 20 years for Alzheimer’s to kill—and it always does. The Alzheimer’s Assn. estimates there will be 9 million Americans with the disease by 2020 and 15 million by 2050. If there are no disease-modifying drugs by then, the cost of care will top $1 trillion. [full text]