Hope on the horizon in Alzheimer’s battle but thousands missing out

Patients in Britain are in danger of missing out on a new generation of Alzheimer’s drugs unless we rapidly improve diagnosis rates, experts warn.

It comes after the US Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to lecanemab – the world’s first drug proven to slow cognitive decline and clear toxic proteins from the brain.

Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Research UK, urged regulators here to complete their assessment “as a matter of urgency” and called for an overhaul of the way dementia is diagnosed in this country.

Ms Evans said the move “signals a step towards a world where Alzheimer’s disease is treatable, but it should also serve as a wake-up call”.

She said: “With a UK decision on the horizon, today’s news underlines the urgency of getting the NHS ready for new medicines like lecanemab. People won’t be able to access these drugs without a confirmed diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, but this is primarily done using a PET scan and the UK has one of the lowest numbers of scanners per capita in the developed world.

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“We’re concerned that, without action, this would significantly restrict access and create inequities in care.”

Lecanemab is an immunotherapy that targets amyloid – a protein that forms plaques around brain cells and is thought to drive Alzheimer’s. Results from a trial showed it slowed cognitive decline by 27 percent in patients with mild symptoms. This was equivalent to slowing the disease’s progress by five months over an 18-month period.

The effects have been described as “modest”, but pave the way for a new generation of medicines targeting amyloid.

One person develops dementia every three minutes in the UK.

By 2040, 1.6 million people are expected to be living with the condition. The Alzheimer’s Society said a conservative estimate suggested at least 100,000 people could benefit in the UK, “but this is likely to be much higher”. Tens of thousands are living with the condition undiagnosed – something made worse by the pandemic.

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Scott Mitchell, husband of the late TV star Dame Barbara Windsor and an Alzheimer’s Research UK ambassador, told the Daily Express yesterday: “The FDA approval of lecanemab is a fantastic step forward and, although it’s a first-generation treatment with modest effects, it gives real hope to so many people like Barbara impacted by this devastating disease.”

Lecanemab was developed by Biogen in the US and Eisai in Japan and is given as a fortnightly intravenous infusion.

A decision on the drug is expected from UK watchdog the MHRA towards the end of this year. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has begun an appraisal of the drug and aims to report soon after.

A second Alzheimer’s drug, donanemab, was also found in trials to slow patients’ decline by 35 percent on average.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard recently revealed she had set up a special team to ensure such drugs can be rolled out as soon as possible after they had received “the green light”.

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