Is Aduhelm the Drug Alzheimer’s Patients Have Been Waiting for? Buck Institute Scientists Weigh In


November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month — drawing attention to the more than 6 million Americans living with the disease. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, the FDA recently approved a drug called Aduhelm that is reported to aid in disrupting the onset of Alzheimer’s, offering hope to those suffering from the disease, as well as their families and loved ones. The drug’s release, however, has been surrounded in controversy, with many scientists and doctors railing against the high costs of the drug, as well as the research the FDA used to approve it.

The acting head of the FDA, Dr. Janet Woodcock, called for an independent investigation into the approval process, and experts like Dr. Marsel Mesulam, director of Northwestern’s Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease, called the evidence “unconvincing” but also added, “I hope the additional data coming out of patients… will surprise us on the upside and prove that the drug has a meaningful impact.” Some clinical trial patients have already had positive results, such as a Chicago-area couple who have been fighting the disease for years, but saw significant improvements once the husband was put on the drug.

Here in Marin County, the Buck Institute, founded in Novato in 1999 as the first biomedical research institution focused exclusively on studying ailments associated with aging, is continuing its fight against this debilitating disease. Buck Institute scientists Julie Anderson, Ph.D., Tara Tracy, Ph.D., and Pankaj Kapahi, Ph.D., discussed Alzheimer’s during the institute’s recent webinar titled, “The Critical Need for New Approaches to Alzheimer’s Disease.” Their conversation surrounding Aduhelm helped shed some light on the controversial new drug.

“Aduhelm is effective in reducing amyloid-beta in the brain, so that’s good,” said Tracy. “However, the most recent phase-three clinical trial that was done was interrupted in the middle of the trial because it looked like the results were suggesting that it wasn’t necessarily having a beneficial effect on cognition.” The challenge in producing an effective treatment for the disorder lies in its complexity, Andersen said. “We’re still trying to figure out what all the components are and if certain components are involved in causing other components… and it’s not clear at all if this would be a good treatment for people with moderate or severe Alzheimer’s,” she said. Regardless of whether Aduhelm proves to be useful in the fight against Alzheimer’s, the Buck Institute will continue to research and produce groundbreaking work to help make aging as painless as possible.

“The Institute is committed to researching diseases that accompany aging and helping ease the pains that come with growing older, and Alzhiemer’s is a huge target,” said Buck Institute Senior Director of Communications Kris Rebillot. In September, the Institute received a $14.3 million grant from the National Institute of Aging to study cellular senescence as a driver of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related dementias. Judith Campisi, Ph.D. and Lisa Ellerby Ph.D., were awarded the grant. “We’re extremely excited to bring our expertise in cellular senescence to efforts to study brain aging in the con-text of dementia,” Campisi said. “Our objective is to uncover new mechanisms that can be developed into interventions to treat patients.”

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richard wrightRichard Wright is a writer from Marin whose work has appeared in San Francisco Magazine, SOMA, 944, The Olympian and numerous online publications. He has an MFA from St. Mary’s College of California in creative writing and lives in Sausalito with his wife, Stephanie.