DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – For the first time in nearly 20 years, the FDA has approved a new drug to help treat Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s the only drug in the United States that can likely treat the disease, not just manage symptoms. The FDA’s decision comes with some controversy: last November an independent advisory panel urged the agency to reject the drug.
But many families and advocates, including the Alzheimer’s Association of the Miami Valley, are welcoming the news, and the hope of getting a little more time with loved ones.
Eric VanVlymen is the Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association of the Miami Valley. He says, “It’s the beginning of a new era, and it buys more time with the people you love doing the things you love.”
The new drug is called Aducanumab. It aims to help clear harmful clumps of a protein from the brain that cause dementia in Alzheimer’s patients. Dr. Kenneth Pugar is a neurologist at the Dayton Center for Neurological Disorders. He says, “This doesn’t improve people, it slows them down from getting worse. And that can be wonderful. If we can do that, who’s to say what the value of that is.”
The new drug did not reverse mental decline, only slowing it in one study, so it’s a treatment, not a cure. Dr. Pugar says, “That just puts an overwhelming importance on us recognizing the disease earlier, meaning earlier diagnosis.”
But it’s providing a lot of hope. The Alzheimer’s Association believes the approval ushers in a new era in treatment since it could potentially delay decline. VanVlymen says, “If we could back that up even a year, that gives the family that much more time with the person.”
The drug is given as an infusion every four weeks at a doctor’s office or hospital. Drugmaker Biogen did not announce the price, but analysts estimate it could cost $30,000 to $50,000 for a year’s worth of treatment once manufacturing ramps up. So access to the drug is a concern, but the Alzheimer’s Association says it’s committed to making sure people can get it when it’s available.
Families are ready for something new. For 19 years now, Terri Littlejohn has been providing around-the-clock care for her mother Dorothy, one of 220,000 Ohioans living with Alzheimer’s Disease. She says Monday’s news gives her hope this fight could be easier for her family and others in the future. “I had multiple family members, such as my grandmother, my mother, and all my grandmother’s siblings affected by this disease.”
WATCH how the newly-approved drug could impact Miami Valley families:
Eight of Littlejohn’s grandmother’s siblings had Alzheimer’s. Terri says she always thought of it as “old age disease”, not realizing it had a name until she was in her teens, and all her great aunts and uncles started dying. Now she cares for her mother, and it takes a toll. Terri says, “It’s been rough at times. Sometimes it is gratifying because you see they’re able to get through with the disease’s effect one day and it’s ok the next day.”
Littlejohn says she thinks about her future, talking with her doctor, taking tests, and worrying. This new drug is the first ever to potentially slow cognitive and functional decline, and she realizes it could help her one day. “I’m the next generation. It would be helpful for me to look at it if it would be a benefit for myself and members of my family.”
Littlejohn cares for her mother 24/7 and says many caregivers like her are stressed by the effort required. But Monday the FDA’s approval provided a chance for something different. Littlejohn says, “It’s just hope that it’s going to be different. If we can take this drug and it won’t be a risk to her health. It’s that hope we have to hold on to.”
Advocates say Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in the country to care for, primarily because of the length of the care. Alzheimer’s Disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.