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Desperate for a Cure

Dozens of companies are trying to come up with a cure for Alzheimer's disease; one announces a novel technique that reaps a whirlwind of publicity ... prematurely.
5 min read
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Browsing through email announcements the other day, one caught my eye:

"Researcher's herald breakthrough data on Alzheimer's."

The article, on the website FierceBiotech, announced that Singapore-based TauRX Therapeutics had just released what appeared to be spectacular data from Phase II clinical trials for their Alzheimer's drug, called Rember.

"Researchers say that Rember slowed cognitive decline in 81 percent of the patients taking the drug," the article said.

If true, this was sensational news for the more than 24 million people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease; currently, there is no effective treatment, and the number of people afflicted by it is forecast to double every 20 years, reaching 80 million by 2040.

Success might also mean a break from rising costs connected to treating Alzheimer's, which is projected to cost Medicare $189 billion in 2015.

I read on, learning that Rember acts by detangling a protein in the brain called Tau that bunches up as the disease progresses. It's one of about 30 new medicines being tested right now to treat Alzheimer's. Other drugs work to prevent a build-up of plaques in the brain called amyloids.

Another promising family of drugs works to boost nicotinic receptors in the brain that help regulate memory and cognition. (See Condé Nast Portfolio feature "The Ultimate Cure.")

The TauRX announcement came at a major international Alzheimer's meeting last month in Chicago, where most of the news was not so great. At this gathering, Myriad Genetics provided the unfortunate details of its failed anti-amyloid drug, Flurizan, which the company was forced to abandon in June when it failed to work in clinical trials.

The mood at the meeting was also darkened by a presentation from Elan Pharmaceutical and Wyeth that offered up confusing data about Bapineuzumab, another promising plaque-busting drug that looked as if it, too, might have failed in Phase II trials.

It turned out that the news about Bapineuzumab was more nuanced than this. Overall, the drug had failed to work, but when researchers parsed through the data, they found that it had shown activity for a subset of test subjects, those who lacked a genetic trait called APOE4 that has been linked to a high risk for Alzheimer's.

Elan and Wyeth will move the drug into a Phase III trial focusing on this subset of patients-though in Chicago, this partial success was not fully understood. That news, coming on top of the Myriad flop, disappointed attendees and left them looking for some good news.

Then Claude Wischik, co-founder and chairman of TauRx Therapeutics, delivered his news.

Actually, Wischik, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and an expert on the Tau protein, reported mostly modest, but positive results from the podium. Even so, many at the meeting were cheered that there might be a compound that will detangle Tau-a process that some speculated could be used in tandem with amyloid-busters to deliver a double-punch to this disease.

So how did this guardedly optimistic presentation of data turn into headlines announcing that Rember is a wonder drug?

Apparently, it was a press release issued about the results. Here is the breathtaking headline and first paragraph:

TauRx Therapeutics Ltd & University of Aberdeen
New treatment halts progress of Alzheimer's disease

A major breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease is revealed today (July 29) by scientists at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease (ICAD 2008) in Chicago, Illinois. Their pioneering research points to a new treatment that appears to slow the progress of the disorder by 81 percent over a year, and could offer hope to millions worldwide. The product-Rember-is the first drug to act on the tangles discovered by Alois Alzheimer over a century ago.

As one observer at the meeting told me, this press release was "very aggressively worded."

The result was that a number of science writers went momentarily gaga; headlines blasted from London and Tokyo to Chicago and New York announcing the wonderful news, which later turned out to be not that wonderful.

In a field as complicated as Alzheimer's, with various mechanisms and compounds and companies vying to create a truly miraculous treatment-and with so many people desperate for one-it's not too surprising that something like this happened.

More remarkable is that a few weeks ago the Food and Drug Administration actually approved a new Alzheimer's drug called Axona, but has gotten scant attention.

Developed by Accera, a Broomfield, Colorado, startup, Axona is not the end-all treatment for Alzheimer's, but it has demonstrated that it can boost the energy efficiency of cells and provide general neuro-protective properties that help Alzheimer's patients. Axona seems to work especially well for patients without the APOE4 gene that increases the carrier's risk for Alzheimer's.

"It is being launched as a prescription medical food, which is a slightly different path than a drug," says Zack Lynch, Executive Director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization.

As the population of our planet ages and tens of millions of brains begin to degenerate, I suspect that there will be many more moments when wishes and desperation for a cure cause a flash of excitement.

Next time, let's hope that the headlines are real.

This article was amended to reflect that the drug Axona works well for patients without the gene that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

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