Is the new Alzheimer’s ‘wonder drug’ really such a miracle?

As far as holy grails in medicine are concerned, you don’t get one much more significant than a cure for dementia. It’s the condition many of us fear most, as the disease slowly but inexorably obliterates the mind.

We’ve been waiting for a breakthrough treatment for decades, yet despite billions spent on drug development and research by governments and companies worldwide, the majority of candidates have fallen by the wayside.

Some experimental medicines have even had the opposite of the intended effect, actually worsening brain function. And the only drugs currently available simply tackle specific symptoms of mild to moderate dementia — there is nothing that can slow down the disease or prevent it.

So, understandably, there was huge excitement and hopeful headlines recently after the first new medicine for Alzheimer’s (the most common type of dementia) in two decades was approved by the U.S. regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As far as holy grails in medicine are concerned, you don’t get one much more significant than a cure for dementia

The drug, aducanumab (brand name, Aduhelm), works by clearing the brain of plaque, formed of a build-up of a sticky protein called amyloid-beta — this has been linked to dying nerve cells and is considered a hallmark feature of Alzheimer’s.

But the approval was controversial because despite clearing the plaque, the drug did not significantly improve patients’ symptoms.

‘The problem is there is absolutely no evidence that reducing amyloid-beta also slows down the course of Alzheimer’s,’ says Robert Howard, a professor of old-age psychiatry at University College London.

‘It’s a bit like removing smoke but not putting the fire out. And it is not a benign treatment; the rate of serious side-effects is quite high.’

Indeed, as many as 40 per cent of those who took the highest dose in trials experienced brain side-effects, which included brain swelling, reported the journal JAMA Neurology this month. And 11 people died during the trials. While it’s not clear if these deaths were related to the drug, the manufacturer Biogen is investigating one particular case of a 75-year-old woman in Canada whose death is thought to be directly connected.

Earlier this month the European Medicines Agency’s advisory committee gave aducanumab a ‘negative trend vote’, suggesting that the drug will not be approved here (a formal ruling is expected in December).

Aducanumab is also not cheap — it costs $56,000 (nearly £40,000) a year, and there will probably be additional costs for monitoring patients with scans.

Yet still, experts are divided. While some say the drug should be available to those who need and want it, others argue it should never have been approved as it showed no meaningful benefit. 

‘There was great hope for the amyloid-lowering drugs but the results from trials have been very disappointing,’ says Gill Livingston, a professor of psychiatry of older people at University College London.

It’s the condition many of us fear most, as the disease slowly but inexorably obliterates the mind

It’s the condition many of us fear most, as the disease slowly but inexorably obliterates the mind

She says aducanumab’s approval in the U.S. ‘just shows how desperate people are for a drug. Many people would still take it despite the risks, because we have nothing else that promises to slow down brain decline’.

Another concern is that its approval sets a precedent for other drugs to be given the green light for Alzheimer’s even if they, too, don’t prove they can slow down brain decline and yet cause significant side-effects. This is highly probable because all of the frontrunners in the pipeline target the same pathway as aducanumab.

And some experts say millions more could be wasted targeting a mechanism that doesn’t yield benefits, when the focus should be shifted elsewhere, including to lifestyle changes we can all take to protect ourselves. 

A much-hoped for breakthrough 

The need for a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s treatment is unequivocal. Around half a million Britons have the disease and the only available treatments, such as donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine target brain chemicals to relieve symptoms, but usually become less effective as the condition worsens.

The problem is that we still don’t understand what causes Alzheimer’s. The conventional view is that amyloid-beta plaques build up and disrupt communication between nerve cells, ultimately causing them to die.

Based on this logic, the solution seems straightforward: clear the plaque to cure Alzheimer’s.

‘But aducanumab isn’t the transformative drug for Alzheimer’s as it generally had a small effect,’ says Dr Tom Russ, a consultant psychiatrist and director of the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, who was involved in the trials. ‘But Alzheimer’s is such an awful illness that anything which has an effect could be of value.’

Others argue that the clinical need justifies the level of risk. Dr Liz Coulthard, a dementia neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust, who was also involved in aducanumab trials, explains: ‘Despite not meeting all of the clinical endpoints in its trials, aducanumab looks promising and I strongly believe we should approve it.

‘I understand reservations over the data, but we can’t shut down options for new Alzheimer’s drugs; we have to treat the right patients who may benefit from them.

‘For example, I see people of working age or in early retirement who have mild cognitive problems. This is a time where we could intervene to stop the condition worsening with the right treatment and yet we have no disease-modifying options for them.

‘They’d appreciate anything and should be able to decide whether to take this drug, knowing the potential benefit and risks.’

Some are more emphatic — Professor Bart De Strooper, director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, describes aducanumab as ‘a game changer’.

‘There is always a gamble you take when approving new therapies. But as we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is possible to move much faster than usual because of the clinical need for a treatment. Yet no one sees dementia as an acute problem, so there is no sense of urgency, which I disagree with.

‘Aducanumab is the first drug to have a significant effect on amyloid plaques. I think we’ll see greater benefits in subpopulations of patients, and timing is crucial.’

Simple steps to stay well

While we wait for the outcome of clinical trials, there could be lifestyle choices that may help us lower our risk of Alzheimer’s. These are particularly important if you have a family history.

A good night’s sleep may be a key preventative factor, suggests Dr Liz Coulthard, a dementia neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust.

Sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea (where throat tissue collapses during sleep) raise blood pressure and cardiovascular risk — both linked to dementia.

But separately, in a stage of sleep known as non-REM, which occurs just after we drop off, amyloid and toxins are cleared from the brain. ‘With interrupted, bad sleep you don’t get into this [non-REM] stage so don’t go into this clearing process — raising the risk of amyloid build-up,’ says Dr Coulthard.

Other scientists are now investigating whether drugs for insomnia could help prevent dementia or treat early signs of disease.

‘It always makes sense to prevent rather than focus on treating conditions — but we must prioritise both equally,’ says Gill Livingston, a professor of psychiatry of older people at University College London. ‘Sadly much more money has gone into the so-called magic bullet than into prevention.’

The 2020 Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care concluded that 40 per cent of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed by tackling 12 modifiable risk factors, including losing excess weight, controlling blood pressure and diabetes, lowering alcohol intake and exercising regularly.

The significance of this is borne out by the fact that while the number of people with dementia is increasing — as we have an older population — the rate per 100,000 has decreased considerably, by 25 per cent in 20 years, says Professor Livingston. ‘This is due to improvements in education, smoking cessation and healthcare — which suggests preventative measures can have an impact.’

A study reported just this month found that a diet packed with vegetables, fruit, beans and tea and coffee seems to protect against dementia.

Researchers in Greece looked at intake of foods thought to reduce inflammation — a third of the 1,000 study volunteers (all aged over 70) who ate the least of these foods were three times more likely to develop dementia during the three-year study, compared with the third who ate the most.

The difficulty is that there is a lack of direct evidence from robust clinical trials for lifestyle interventions to prevent dementia, says Dr Sebastian Walsh, an academic clinical fellow at the University of Cambridge, but the emerging evidence is pointing clearly towards a benefit of maintaining a healthy lifestyle (e.g. exercising more, eating well, keeping your brain active), reducing dementia risk.

‘It’s definitely worth trying because this prevents other diseases too, and unlike taking drugs there are no side-effects,’ says Dr Walsh. The problem, he adds, is that while a treatment has been prioritised, investment towards improving prevention and care for patients has been lacking.

‘What we don’t need is drugs that don’t work lauded as magic bullets wasting millions — we have to spend money on things that will change people’s lives and be honest with people about where we are.’

Are we looking in the wrong direction? 

But some researchers believe targeting amyloid-beta is misguided, because reducing the plaque build-up didn’t translate into a meaningful benefit to patients in the aducanumab trials. Also, crucially, many people have this plaque build-up but never develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s, says Dr Russ.

‘Based on studies from brain scans in living people as well as samples taken in post-mortems, lots of people have lots of amyloid in their brains and yet can live long lives with no symptoms. There’s no doubt that targeting amyloid is an important avenue to pursue, but it’s become the only one,’ he says.

Amyloid-beta actually occurs naturally in the brain, where it’s thought to have an antimicrobial effect and play a role in the transport of cholesterol (needed to help release chemicals between nerve cells and keep them functioning).

It is its accumulation that seems to be harmful, says Dr Russ. ‘But even with amyloid build-up, we still don’t know who will progress to have symptoms of Alzheimer’s and who won’t — so it can’t be the whole story.’

And rather than continually throwing good money after bad ideas, we have to look at other factors methodically, says Professor Livingston. ‘People are attached to an idea that amyloid is a cause and targeting it makes a difference — we keep trying and nothing quite comes through.

‘We must acknowledge when something isn’t working and move on, regardless of how much has been spent on the research.’

Professor Howard concurs: ‘Our simplistic view that Alzheimer’s is caused by amyloid just isn’t right.

‘Plaques have been found in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains since the 1900s, and we still haven’t determined their role in disease. Our understanding of the disease might be completely wrong.’

Indeed, one theory, he says, is that amyloid is a good thing, and may be part of the way the brain adapts to Alzheimer’s, rather than a cause. 

‘We don’t even know what happens long term if we remove amyloid because patients who take the amyloid-lowering drugs are not followed up after studies end,’ adds Professor Howard.

Hope for a vaccine to prevent dementia 

Another option is to vaccinate people against dementia — U.S. researchers are already testing a nasal vaccine on people with early Alzheimer’s disease.

The vaccine contains a compound, Protollin, that’s thought to mobilise the immune system’s white blood cells to ‘migrate to the brain and trigger clearance of beta-amyloid plaques’, the researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in the U.S. said when they launched the trial this month.

The hope is that this could treat Alzheimer’s and prevent it in people at risk.

The University of Leicester is also testing a potential vaccine, albeit so far only in mice. They say they’ve discovered a version of amyloid-beta that specifically causes Alzheimer’s.

‘Trials so far have been targeting amyloid-beta plaque, but this is not a cause of disease but a consequence of it,’ says Mark Carr, a professor of biochemistry and chair of the Antibody-Assisted Drug Discovery Consortium at the university.

Using the analogy of measles, he explains that ‘to cure it you don’t treat the spots, you target the virus that causes disease — we identified a rare form of amyloid-beta that causes Alzheimer’s, and when we targeted it using an antibody in mice, we were able to spectacularly slow disease progression’.

The researchers identified that the type of amyloid-beta involved was hairpin shaped. ‘No one had ever suggested amyloid-beta would form this type of structure — but this could explain why drugs so far haven’t been effective,’ says Professor Carr.

‘When we identified the structure, we were able to engineer an antibody [called TAP01 and given by injection] to target it.’

This is ‘a very different, interesting approach’, comments Robert Howard, a professor of old age psychiatry at University College London. ‘But it is still being studied in mice, so is a long way from fruition,’ he adds, sounding a note of caution.

‘From experience, we cure dementia in mice at least three times a week, but when we take it into human studies the results aren’t the same.’

Untangling the root cause

So if amyloid is the wrong target, where should the focus be? One option is tau, another protein but one found inside brain cells — it misfolds and forms tangles that are thought to interfere with the way cells communicate. These tangles are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, seen in post-mortem studies.

These studies have also revealed that some patients have lots of tau tangles, and yet no amyloid plaque — with research suggesting that cognitive decline is closely linked to the number and location of tau tangles.

What causes the tau to become tangled is unclear, but it can be worsened by the plaque and by inflammation in the brain which ensues as a result.

Based on this, some researchers believe that it is the tau tangles that determine the severity of symptoms — and so targeting them might have a more meaningful effect on a patient’s day-to-day life than targeting the amyloid.

Trials into molecules that prevent tau tangles are under way, says Professor Howard, although it remains early days for these.

However, one tau inhibitor is in advanced trials, led by Aberdeen-based maker TauRx Therapeutics — around 600 patients will be given a high or low dose of the drug (codenamed TRx0237) or a placebo (preliminary results may be available next March).

‘We think targeting tau would yield faster effects than if targeting amyloid,’ says Professor De Strooper. ‘If we want to stop amyloid building up we would need to target it much earlier in life. What’s exciting is that some companies are now looking into combining both the amyloid and tau drugs into a single treatment.’

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