Health & Science

San Diegans Find Hope in FDA Approved Drug For Alzheimer's, Despite Controversy

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For the first time in nearly two decades, a new medical treatment for Alzheimer’s patients has been approved by the FDA. It’s on the market despite some experts' concerns over the drug’s efficacy.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans and their families are affected by the disease, including Julia Cheng’s family. Cheng said her grandmother, 94-year-old Susan Ling, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 10 years ago.

“Whenever I go see her now, she doesn’t remember me,” explained Cheng. Cheng was Ling’s caregiver before moving to San Diego to study neuroscience at UCSD, which she said she was inspired to do because of her grandmother’s condition.

“The fear for me, was always not knowing enough, so that’s why I pursued this major,” Cheng explained.

Cheng has been following the medical trials for the drug. Aducanumab. It was approved by the FDA to treat the disease. Medical experts say it attacks the amyloid, also known as plaque, that builds in the brain and makes it difficult for the brain to function normally. The treatment is intended to slow cognitive decline.

“I’m very optimistic about the effect it will have on people, especially since this is the first drug to attack the hallmark of the disease, not just the symptoms,” Cheng said.

But some experts oppose the drug and have warned there isn’t enough evidence to prove it works well.

Howard Feldman, M.D., a local doctor and professor at UCSD, told NBC 7 he would feel comfortable prescribing the treatment to his eligible patients.

“This is a momentous day for persons at risk or with Alzheimer’s Disease. It heralds the beginning of an era of treatment that is directed to the underlying pathology of the disease,” Feldman said.

While some have called for another trial before FDA approval, Feldman said those who trust the current data believe another trial would take too long.

“To do another trial would be another five years. Patients should not have the treatment withheld for another five years,” Feldman said.

Feldman also addressed concern over brain bleeds and swelling. “This is a manageable problem. These complications can occur from the disease itself, in less frequency.”

Experts said the drug is designed for patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so Cheng’s grandmother likely isn’t a candidate. But Cheng said she worries one day her parents, or she, will be faced with the diagnosis and has some relief in knowing a drug will likely be available for them.

“This drug would at least give us some hope that I would have more time with my parents, or they’d be able to be independent longer,” said Cheng.

The FDA is requiring the drug maker to conduct a follow-up study to confirm whether the drug really is effective. It could be pulled from the market if the findings aren’t consistent.

Infusion treatments are expected to cost more than $50,000 a year. A spokesperson with the local Alzheimer's Association chapter is already looking at ways the organization can help eligible patients pay for the drug.

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