For millions living with dementia – and for their loved ones – the future may appear bleak.
Thanks to medical breakthroughs, more people than ever are surviving our other biggest killers – heart disease, strokes and cancer.
But research into dementia drugs have led to dead ends, and time and again, hopes have been dashed.
Now, finally, there is cause for cautious optimism. A host of exciting projects are under way that could result in new medications for people with the disease and, perhaps, a new understanding of how it develops in the first place.
‘Noticeable improvement’: Aldo Ceresa with his wife Laura. His symptoms eased during a trial but 67-year-old had his treatment stopped last year when the trial was halted
Dr John Skidmore, of the Alborada Drug Discovery Institute in Cambridge, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘We know different types of dementia are caused by different disease processes. And because we understand the biology of those diseases, it gives us a chance to intervene.’
Last month, drugs giant Biogen submitted its pioneering treatment, called aducanumab, for approval in the US after trial results showed it could significantly slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common kind of dementia.
It means that the drug could be available in the UK in two years and pave the way for a new wave of therapies.
Aducanumab targets amyloid, a protein that builds up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Normally these proteins circulate in the blood, but if they become sticky they can clump together, forming what are known as plaques in the brain. It is thought that in some people with Alzheimer’s, too many of these toxic plaques form, while in others something happens which stops the plaques being flushed away as they should.
Aducanumab, fed into the bloodstream via a drip, works by sweeping away these plaques to prevent damage.
An initial trial found it was safe, significantly reduced levels of amyloid and reduced the rate of cognitive decline. But huge disappointment came after a second, larger study, launched in 2017, was abruptly stopped a year in when early analysis of one branch of the trial suggested the drug was not working. But when Biogen analysed all patients given the highest doses for the longest amount of time, from both branches of the trial, it found positive results.
A host of exciting projects are under way that could result in new medications for people with the disease and, perhaps, a new understanding of how it develops in the first place (file photo)
Dr Catherine Mummery, dementia expert from University College Hospital, London, who led the UK arm of the Biogen trial, said: ‘The research community is very cautious, although optimistic. Some people will call what Biogen did data manipulation, and others will agree it supports their original findings But the fact is that there are people who believe they’ve had a fantastic result.’
One such patient is retired dental surgeon Aldo Ceresa. The 67-year-old, who lives with his wife Laura near Oxford, had his treatment stopped last year when the trial was halted. He hopes it will now be reinstated, as he says the drug ‘noticeably improved’ his Alzheimer’s symptoms. Within months, he felt his condition stopped deteriorating. He also got better at the puzzles set by the trial leaders to assess his brain function. ‘I was beginning to get quite good at them,’ he says. ‘Laura noticed I was getting better too. I was less confused and could concentrate better.’
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Since he stopped taking the drug, his condition has worsened, which has been ‘frustrating’, he says.
‘I know it’s not going to cure me, but it could offer so many people so much extra time