FDA approves much-debated Alzheimer's drug panned by experts

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- On Monday, June 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first drug to be able to delay progression in Alzheimer's disease. The surprise decision came after the agency's independent advisers said the treatment hadn't been shown to help treat the brain-destroying disease.

It's the first new Alzheimer's treatment in nearly 20 years and the only one that FDA has backed to treat the underlying disease, rather than manage symptoms. It's called aducanumab, its commercial name is Aduhelm by Biogen and some doctors call Monday a significant day.

"It's designed to remove a protein in the brain that leads to Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Nathaniel Chin, medical director for Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and a geriatrician at UW Health.

Doctors and area memory care facilities say the approval of aducanumab offers hope and options for people with Alzheimer's, their families and the medical community.

"Any drug that can help to slow it down and treat the symptoms, we're very excited about," said Catherine Solakian, director of marketing at Congregational Home in Brookfield.

Solakian says anywhere between 30% to 40% of Congregational Home residents are diagnosed and treated for memory care.

"As folks advance in age late 70s early 80s and so on down the line, Alzheimer's or some form of dementia is certainly in play there," said Rick Abrams, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Health Care Association and Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living. "It's another great chapter in the tremendous ingenuity and creativity that we have in our great country."

The Alzheimer's Association calling Monday's FDA approval a win.

“This approval is a victory for people living with Alzheimer’s and their families,” said Harry Johns, Alzheimer’s Association president and chief executive officer, in a statement.

Dr. Chin says patients looking to use the drug must be diagnosed with earlier stages of Alzheimer's for it to be effective, because it targets a specific protein.

"You'd actually have to know that you have that protein called Amyloid in your brain, without having that protein this drug really has no value to you," he says.

While he's optimistic and hopeful for his patients, Dr. Chin understands the struggle of seeing a family member suffer with Alzheimer's after his dad was diagnosed years ago.

"I have mixed feelings -- I wish this drug were around when he was first diagnosed, it may have preserved more time with him, but I'm optimistic and hopeful that now when I interact with patients I'll have something meaningful for them," he says.

Solakian says it's devastating to hear families talk about their loved ones affected by Alzheimer's.

"This is not my father, this is not my mother. It's a shell of a person, she's not in there anymore and they're already gone and that's a very sad thing to hear," Solakian says.

Dr. Chin says some complications were noticed in trials, which included swelling and bleeding, so patients should be monitored after using it. He reminds families how they approach Alzheimer's to a loved one can make all the difference, and advise people document instances of memory loss and stress to show their loved ones how much they care.

"I want to do what is right for you, I want you to be in the best form, best shape of your life, I want you to have the best quality of life," he says are effective ways to communicate.  

While the drug could help to slow progression in early Alzheimer's patients, Dr. Chin says it is not a cure and maintaining a healthy lifestyle will still be critical.

For more information on Alzheimer's disease, click here. 

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