The results of a moderate sized trial on a new Alzheimer’s drug have just been announced and the results, if reliable, may suggest that the treatment is one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the century.
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, a degenerative disorder of where the brain starts to degrade more quickly than would be expected through normal ageing.
One of the common features of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. These are clumps of tau protein that accumulate inside dying neurons. There have been debates about whether these cause the problems or are just the result, but most researchers are now coming round to the idea that tau protein tangles are the main problem.
The drug has been given the tradename ‘remben’ and was initially thought to be useful as it dissolved tangles in the test tube. It has just been tested in a Phase II trial which have been announced at an Alzheimer’s research conference.
The results of the first announced trial has not been published but there are details on the conference press release which I’ve included below the fold.
What’s most impressive from the preliminary details, is that the drug seemed to both slow or even stop cognitive decline in some cases, as well as eliminating the decline in blood flow in the areas usually most affected by the disease suggesting that it is halting the spread of tangles.
Interestingly, the company behind the drug, TauRx, have just launched their website today to catch the wave of publicity.
However, I’m wondering whether there’s more to it than meets the eye because, if I’ve got it right, the drug isn’t actually new.
Its chemical name is methylthioninium chloride but it’s also known as methylene blue and was synthesised way back in 1876. It was shown to be active against malaria by Paul Ehrlich in 1891 and later as a useful antibacterial drug (have a look at this fascinating NYT article from 1910).
In the late 1980s it was tried as a treatment for manic-depressive disorder and found to be useful.
Is this seems surprising, you may be interested to know that methylene blue was the basic compound from which the first antipsychotic drug chlorpromazine or Thorazine was made (in case you’re wondering, this family of antipsychotics can also work as anti-bacterial drugs, but have not been used due to other drugs having less side-effects).
If this is really just methylene blue, what this means in financial terms is that the drug can’t be patented.
In other words, anyone can make the drug which means its much harder to make money on it as pricing becomes competitive. In contrast, a patent gives you a time-limited monopoly – albeit one that can earn billions.
A widely available cheap generic drug that treats a major disease is actually a fantastic thing for society, but developing them is not typical behaviour for pharmaceutical companies who tend to shun unpatentable drugs.
Also, it’s probably true to say that the history of drug development shows a typical three stage process:
1. We’ve found a miracle cure!
2. We’ve found a miracle cure, but it can kill people.
3. It’s not a miracle cure, it can kill people, but it’s worth the risk in many cases.
So, time will tell how useful it is in the real world, but pretty much everyone has their fingers crossed that it will work out as a useful treatment.
Link to write-up from The Telegraph.
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