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Maine Alzheimer's Group Welcomes FDA's Approval Of New Drug

Medicare Alzheimer Brain Scans
Matt York
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2018 file photo, a doctor looks at PET brain scans in Phoenix. A big study to help Medicare officials decide whether to start covering brain scans to check for Alzheimer’s disease missed its goals for curbing emergency room visits and hospitalizations.

Advocates in Maine are applauding the federal approval Monday of a controversial new drug to treat Alzheimer's disease. It's the first time in nearly two decades that a new drug has been approved for Alzheimer's. And while it's injecting hope among the 29,000 people in Maine who have the disease, the response from experts is mixed because the effectiveness of the drug is unclear.

The drug is called aducanumab, and it's the first drug approved for Alzheimer's that treats the underlying cause of the disease, not just symptoms. That's why advocacy groups, including the Alzheimer's Association, say they are excited about it. Drew Wyman, the executive director of the Maine Chapter, says the drug can't reverse the disease, but it could halt its progression.

"The fact that it would enable people to have more time with loved ones and stay in the community doing daily living routine that otherwise might not be able to do is huge," Wyman says.

Debbie Carr, who serves on the Alzheimer's Association Board, lost her husband, Tom, two years ago from the disease. She says he tried countless medications, but nothing worked.

"I'm hopeful that this drug will be the one," Carr says.

Carr also hopes the approval of this drug will stimulate research and investment into more treatments for Alzheimer's. But not everyone is pinning high hopes on aducanumab.

"I have reservations. As do many, many experts," says Dr. Cliff Singer, the chief of geriatric neuropsychiatry at Northern light Health and the principal investigator of their Alzheimer's Disease research program.

Singer says clinical trials haven't demonstrated that the drug makes much a difference in the disease. He says it may work best before symptoms of Alzheimer's even appear. It's also expensive, about $50,000 a year. And Singer says when patients have access to this drug, it could actually hamper research.

"Will they be willing to participate in placebo controlled clinical trials of clinical therapies that may be better, safer, and more effective?" Singer says.

Despite its drawbacks, Singer says this new drug may be better than nothing for individuals early in the disease process. But he says he's preparing for many difficult and frank discussions with patients.