"The graveyard of hope." That's what experts call the quest for effective Alzheimer's treatments, a two-decade effort that has been marked by one costly and high-profile failure after another. Nearly all of the drugs tested target one of the key hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease: amyloid plaques, the barnacle-like proteins long considered the culprits behind the memory-robbing ravages of the disease. Yet all the anti-amyloid drugs have flopped miserably, prompting some scientists to believe we've fingered the wrong villain.
"We're flogging a dead horse," says Peter Davies, PhD, an Alzheimer's researcher at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York. "The fact that no one's gotten better suggests that you have the wrong mechanism."
If the naysayers are right, how could a scientific juggernaut of this magnitude—involving hundreds of scientists in academia and industry at a cost of tens of billions of dollars--be so far off the mark? There are no easy answers, but some experts believe this calls into question how research is conducted and blame part of the failure on the insular culture of the scientific aristocracy at leading academic institutions.
"The field began to be dominated by narrow views."
"The field began to be dominated by narrow views," says George Perry, PhD, an Alzheimer's researcher and dean of the College of Sciences at the University of Texas in San Antonio. "The people pushing this were incredibly articulate, powerful and smart. They'd go to scientific meetings and all hang around with each other and they'd self-reinforce."
In fairness, there was solid science driving this. Post-mortem analyses of Alzheimer's patients found their brains were riddled with amyloid plaques. People with a strong family history of Alzheimer's had genetic mutations in the genes that encode for the production of amyloids. And in animal studies, scientists found that if amyloids were inserted into the brains of transgenic mice, they exhibited signs of memory loss. Remove the amyloids and they suddenly got better. This body of research helped launch the Amyloid Cascade Hypothesis of the disease in 1992—which has driven research ever since.
Scientists believed that the increase in the production of these renegade proteins, which form sticky plaques and collect outside of the nerve cells in the brain, triggers a series of events that interfere with the signaling system between synapses. This seems to prevent cells from relaying messages or talking to each other, causing memory loss, confusion and increasing difficulties doing the normal tasks of life. The path forward seemed clear: stop amyloid production and prevent disease progression. "We were going after the obvious abnormality," says Dr. David Knopman, a neurologist and Alzheimer's researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
"Why wouldn't you do that?" Why ideed.
In hindsight, though, there was no real smoking gun—no one ever showed precisely how the production of amyloids instigates the destruction of vital brain circuits.
"Amyloids are clearly important," says Perry, "but they have not proven to be necessary and sufficient for the development of this disease."
Ironically, there have been hints all along that amyloids may not be toxic bad boys.
A handful of studies revealed that amyloid proteins are produced in healthy brains to protect synapses. Research on animal models that mimic diseases suggest that certain forms of amyloids can ease damage from strokes, traumatic brain injuries and even heart attacks. In a 2013 study, to cite just one example, a Stanford University team injected synthetic amyloids into paralyzed mice with an inflammatory disorder similar to multiple sclerosis. Instead of worsening their symptoms—which is what the researchers expected to happen--the mice could suddenly walk again. Remove the amyloids, and they became paralyzed once more.
Still other studies suggest amyloids may actually function as molecular guardians dispatched to silence inflammation and mop up errant cells after an injury as part of the body's waste management system. "The presence of amyloids is a protective response to something going wrong, a threat," says Dr. Dale Bredesen, a UCLA neurologist. "But the problem arises when the threats are chronic, multiple, unrelenting and intense. The defenses the brain mounts are also intense and these protective mechanisms cross the line into causing harm, and killing the very synapses and brain cells the amyloid was called up to protect."
So how did research get derailed?
In a way, we're victims of our own success, critics say.
Early medical triumphs in the heady post-World War II era, like the polio vaccine that eradicated the crippling childhood killer, or antibiotics, reinforced the magic bullet idea of curing disease--find a target and then hit it relentlessly. That's why when scientists made the link between amyloids and disease progression, Big Pharma jumped on the bandwagon in hopes of inventing a trillion-dollar drug. This approach is fine when you have an acute illness, like an infectious disease that's caused by one agent, but not for something as complicated as Alzheimer's.
The other piece of the problem is the dwindling federal dollars for basic research. Maverick scientists find it difficult to secure funding, which means that other possible targets or approaches remained relatively unexplored—and drug companies are understandably reluctant to sponsor fishing expeditions with little guarantee of a payoff. "Very influential people were driving this hypothesis," says Davies, and with careers on the line, "there was not enough objectivity or skepticism about that hypothesis."
Still, no one is disputing the importance of anti-amyloid drugs—and ongoing clinical trials, like the DIAN and A4 studies, are intervening earlier in patients who are at a high risk of developing Alzheimer's, but before they're symptomatic. "The only way to know if this is really a dead end is if you take it as far as it can go," says Knopman. "I believe the A4 study is the proper way to test the amyloid hypothesis."
But according to some experts, the latest thinking is that Alzheimer's is triggered by a range of factors, including genetics, poor diet, stress and lack of exercise.
"Alzheimer's is like other chronic age-related diseases and is multi-factorial," says Perry. "Modulating amyloids may have value but other avenues need to be explored."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby