US approves drug that slows Alzheimer’s, yearly cost to be around $26,500

In a major development, the US regulator, which is considered as the standard around the globe, on Friday approved a closely watched Alzheimer’s drug that’s been shown to modestly slow the early stages of the brain-robbing disease, albeit with potential safety risks that doctors and patients will have to carefully weigh.

The drug, to be sold under the brand Leqembi, belongs to a class of treatments that aims to slow the advance of the neurodegenerative disease by removing sticky clumps of the toxic protein beta amyloid from the brain.

Leqembi – the brand name – is the first that’s been convincingly shown to slow the decline in memory and thinking that defines Alzheimer’s by targeting the disease’s underlying biology. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it specifically for patients with mild or early cases of dementia.

Leqembi, from Japan’s Eisai and its US partner Biogen, is a rare success in a field accustomed to failed experimental treatments for the incurable condition. The delay in cognitive decline brought about by the drug likely amounts to just several months, but some experts say it could still meaningfully improve people’s lives.

“This drug is not a cure. It doesn’t stop people from getting worse, but it does measurably slow the progression of the disease,” said Dr Joy Snider, a neurologist at Washington University in St Louis. “That might mean someone could have an extra six months to a year of being able to drive.”

Snider stressed that the medicine, pronounced “leh-KEM-bee,” comes with downsides, including the need for twice-a-month infusions and possible side effects like brain swelling and bleeding.

Approval came via FDA’s accelerated pathway, which allows drugs to launch based on early results, before they’re confirmed to benefit patients. The agency’s use of that shortcut has come under increasing scrutiny from government watchdogs and congressional investigators.

Price

The drug will cost $26,500 for a typical year’s worth of treatment. Eisai said that price reflects the drug’s benefit in terms of improved quality of life, reduced burdens for caregivers and other factors. The company pegged its overall value at $37,000 per year, but said it priced the drug lower to reduce costs for patients and insurers. An independent group that assesses drug value recently said the drug would have to be priced below $20,600 to be cost-effective.

Approval background

The FDA’s approval was based on one mid-stage study in 850 people with early symptoms of Alzheimer’s who also tested positive for a type of brain plaque that is a hallmark of the disease.

Since then, Eisai has published the results of a larger 1,800-patient study that the FDA is expected to soon review to confirm the drug’s benefit, setting up a decision on full approval later this year.

The larger study tracked patients’ results on an 18-point scale that measures memory, judgment and other cognitive abilities. Doctors compile the rating from interviews with the patient and a close contact. After 18 months, patients receiving Leqembi declined more slowly — a difference of less than half a point on the scale — than patients who received a dummy infusion. The delay amounted to just over five months.

There is little consensus on whether that difference translates into real benefits for patients, such as greater independence.

“Most patients won’t notice the difference,” said Dr Matthew Schrag, a neurology researcher at Vanderbilt University. “This is really quite a small effect and probably below the threshold of what we’d call clinically significant.”

Schrag and some other researchers believe a meaningful improvement would require at least a difference of one full point on the 18-point scale.

Last week, a congressional report found that FDA’s approval of a similar Alzheimer’s drug called Aduhelm — also from Biogen and Eisai — was “rife with irregularities,” including a number of meetings with drug company staffers that went undocumented.

Scrutiny of the new drug will likely mean most patients won’t start receiving it for months, as insurers decide whether to cover it and for whom.

What Alzheimer’s is

Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms eventually grow severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.

It is the most common cause of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80 percent of dementia cases.

Some six million people in the US and many more worldwide have Alzheimer’s, which gradually attacks areas of the brain needed for memory, reasoning, communication and daily tasks.

Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. The greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. Alzheimer’s disease is considered to be younger-onset Alzheimer’s if it affects a person under 65. Younger-onset can also be referred to as early-onset Alzheimer’s. People with younger-onset Alzheimer’s can be in the early, middle or late stage of the disease.

It worsens over time. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives 4 to 8 years after diagnosis but can live as long as 20 years, depending on other factors.

As mentioned earlier in this report, Alzheimer’s has no cure, but treatment such the latest drug. The most common early symptom is difficulty remembering newly learned information.

Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we age. Most of us eventually notice some slowed thinking and occasional problems with remembering certain things. However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be a sign that brain cells are failing.

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