What does the breakthrough dementia drug mean for our families?
There have been many headlines this week about a new drug that can address the challenges of dementia, after years of failed research. But what is its significance, and what can it do for us and our loved ones who are already living with dementia?
First, we are talking here specifically about Alzheimer’s Disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Currently more than 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia, and 520,000 of those have Alzheimer’s.
People with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s are already offered medication, with drugs such as donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine designed to boost chemical messengers in the brain and sometimes reduce anxiety. Those with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s may be offered memantine, which can additionally help to reduce challenging behaviours and delusions.
How is this treatment different?
To date, drugs offered have only been able to slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s and there is not any cure yet.
The new drug, lecanemab, is different, says Alzheimer’s Research, because it is the first time that a drug has been shown in clinical trials to both reduce the disease in the brain and slow memory decline. That means that while current treatment reduce symptoms, lecanemab can delay the worsening of symptoms.
However, data so far suggests that lecanemab might not deliver noticeable changes for all patients.
Those celebrating the innovation though argue that this is a momentous breakthrough after much failed research.
Can it help us now?
One of the challenges of making the drug available to the general population is that it needs to be prescribed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. With the current pressures on the NHS, the wait to see a specialist and receive a brain scan could mean that the window for prescribing the drug may pass while people are on the waiting list.
Even when a diagnosis has been made, lecanemab is not about a daily pill. It requires patients to attend a clinic twice a month for an intravenous infusion. And patients need to be monitored closely for side effects, including brain scans. That’s not something that the NHS can offer right now.
It looks like we are going to need more investment in the delivery of services to enjoy the benefits of the new drug through the NHS. There have already been many calls for a new strategy in the light of an ageing population and the projected increase in dementia, and it is to be hoped that these are listened to with renewed urgency.
All that said, the experts are delighted with the breakthrough, so it does give us cause for optimism in the long term.
Sky News on how common Alzheimer’s is and the difference the new drug could make
BBC questions and answers on dementia and the new drug hailed as a momentous breakthrough
The Guardian on whether this is the real deal as we inch closer to a treatment for Alzheimer’s
The Conversation on the promise and the hurdles of lecanemab
Deaths raise safety fears for new therapy drug
Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash