FDA approves first-of-its-kind Alzheimer’s treatment

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For the first time in 18 years, there’s new hope for New Mexicans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for, literally for decades,” said Janice Knoefel, a professor of geriatrics, internal medicine, and neurology at UNM.

On Thursday, the FDA granted full approval to Alzheimer’s drug Leqembi. Medical experts say the treatment targets the underlying causes of cognitive decline rather than the disease’s symptoms. In clinical trials involving patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s, the drug slowed progression by 27%.

“To be clear, the new treatment itself slows down the decline, but not reversing course,” Knoefel said. She says it’s important to know the new treatment is not a cure; however, she believes it is a major step forward toward a potential cure. “There have been a number of false starts, treatments that we thought were very promising turned out to not be, and so this is a real landmark.”

Early detection is a key ingredient in the new treatment. The drug is only effective in patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s, and medical experts say people in their 50s – or even their 40s – can be diagnosed with the disease.

Officials with New Mexico’s chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association say the FDA’s approval is sparking optimism.

“I’m seeing a lot more hope, a lot more hope for our families and the people that are living with Alzheimer’s, but it’s just the first step,” said executive director Tim Sheehan.

Sheehan says 43,000 New Mexicans were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, but he estimates there’s just as many people suffering from the disease who have not been diagnosed. He suspects many of those undiagnosed patients aren’t willing to get tested or simply can’t get tested.

“We’re in what I call a neurology desert,” he said .”We don’t have enough neurologists in the state. I think a couple of years ago, we had 27, and they’re estimating we need at least 90-100 of them.”

Knoefel says there’s a waitlist for new dementia-related appointments at UNM, underlining a shortage of qualified medical professionals. While many are calling the new treatment a game changer, Knoefel suggests there may be hurdles in administering the drug in New Mexico.

“I am disappointed to say that it’s not an oral medication,” she said. “It’s a twice-a-month infusion, but even getting up to that point is really going to be difficult because we have to demonstrate in the brain in real time that the actual process that is affecting the individual actually is the Alzheimer process.”

She says the test needed to confirm that diagnosis is not currently available in New Mexico and the alternatives are quite expensive. Knoefel says there is a way to confirm a diagnosis through a spinal tap, but she admits few Alzheimer’s patients are willing to volunteer for that.

Knoefel suggests even if the right test was available, there is still a lack of medical resources that could delay patient care.

“We’re going to need more infusion clinics, more infusion clinic beds, more personnel for that,” she said. “We’re looking at lab personnel, we’re looking at imaging experts and techs, we’re certainly looking at more and more nursing. Nursing is critical.”

Both Knoefel and Sheehan believe there are ways for state lawmakers to assist with funding. Knoefel also suggests the FDA’s full approval may open new doors for funding as well.

While many are celebrating the new drug’s potential impact, Sheehan says he’s still looking forward to a potential cure.

“There’s so much research going on out there these days that we really feel that there is hope out there,” he said.