‘Turning point’ in the fight against Alzheimer’s as drug found to slow disease

The results of a new trial were labelled as symbolic of ‘a new era where Alzheimer’s disease could become treatable’

Eleanor Noyce
Monday 17 July 2023 21:17 BST
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A new drug is being hailed as a turning point in the fight against Alzheimer’s after a groundbreaking trial found it slows the progression of the disease.

A study found that the use of donanemab slowed “clinical decline” by up to 35 per cent, allowing those diagnosed to continue performing daily tasks with independence such as managing their finances, taking medication or shopping.

The results of the new trial were labelled as symbolic of “a new era where Alzheimer’s disease could become treatable” by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a build-up of proteins in the brain which affect how the brain cells transmit messages.

The most common form of dementia, a group of symptoms characterised by an accumulative decline in brain functioning, the disease can affect multiple brain functions. Risk can increase with age, impacting one in 14 people over the age of 65 and one in six people over the age of 80.

A study found that the use of donanemab slowed ‘clinical decline’ by up to 35 per cent
A study found that the use of donanemab slowed ‘clinical decline’ by up to 35 per cent (PA)

However, the NHS notes that approximately one in every 20 people diagnosed are under 65, known as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

A progressive condition, Alzheimer’s disease can develop gradually, with the first sign often presenting as minor memory problems. As it develops, these symptoms can worsen to include confusion or disorientation, speech and language issues, hallucinations and changes in personality, including increasing aggression.

Examining almost 1,800 people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, the study saw half of participants receive a monthly infusion of donanemab and half receive a placebo over the course of 18 months.

Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and presented to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Amsterdam, the results concluded that after 76 weeks of treatment the drug was able to slow clinical decline by 35.1 per cent in people with early Alzheimer’s.

Critically, the brain scans among this cohort demonstrated low or medium levels of tau, a protein that stabilises the internal skeleton of nerve cells in the brain.

Alzheimer's is most common in those aged over 65
Alzheimer's is most common in those aged over 65 (PA)

“This is truly a turning point in the fight against Alzheimer’s and science is proving that it is possible to slow down the disease”, said Dr Richard Oakley, associate director of research and innovation at Alzheimer’s Society.

“Treatments like donanemab are the first steps towards a future where Alzheimer’s disease could be considered a long-term condition alongside diabetes or asthma – people may have to live with it, but they could have treatments that allow them to effectively manage their symptoms and continue to live fulfilled lives.

“Today’s full results support what we heard about donanemab back in May, that the drug is able to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by more than 20 per cent.

“This study adds to the growing evidence that treating people as early as possible may be more beneficial, with the effects of donanemab greater in people who were at an earlier stage of the disease.”

However, a small number of participants experienced serious side effects including brain swelling, with three deaths in the donanemab group and one in the placebo considered “treatment related”.

As such, Dr Oakley urged that regulators will “need to balance” these side effects against the drug’s benefits, adding that serious side effects “only occurred in 1.6 per cent of people receiving the drug.”

“We should also note that the majority of people who took part in this trial were white – it’s crucial that in future trials we see more diversity to prove that new drug treatments have similar effects for everyone living with Alzheimer’s disease,” he continued.

“Just as we’ve seen a transformation in cancer treatment in recent decades, we’re really hopeful we’re on the same path for dementia.”

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