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Major Alzheimer’s drug gets FDA approval. What it means for patients in Kentucky, Southern Indiana

This illustration depicts cells in an Alzheimer's-affected brain.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON AGING, NIH
/
AP
This illustration, made available by the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health, depicts cells in an Alzheimer's-affected brain. A new drug modestly slowed the brain disease's progression, researchers reported.

This week’s federal approval of a medication called lecanemab — the brand name for which is Leqembi — represents a watershed moment for treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive, neurodegenerative illness that causes memory loss and other problems with the brain. Until now, it “has not really had any treatment addressing what we think are the underlying causes to try to modify the course of this illness,” said Dr. Greg Cooper, director of the Norton Neuroscience Institute Memory Center.

Alzheimer’s is a complex condition, the causes of which are still being studied and debated, Cooper said. One hypothesis is that the disease is driven by the accumulation of “an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid in the brain that then leads to everything else we see in Alzheimer's disease.”

Lecanemab is designed to help remove that amyloid from the brain,” Cooper told reporters at a news conference in Louisville Friday. “It’s an antibody developed in the laboratory that is given to people through an IV, intravenously.”

This new medication is not a cure for Alzheimer’s. But Cooper said studies indicate it can slow the progression of the disease by around 30%.

He’s hopeful that as the drug’s impacts on patients are studied over longer periods of time, it could prove to be even more effective.

The new treatment is mainly targeted toward people who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, Cooper told reporters.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved the lecanemab medication on Thursday. The FDA noted the drug potentially can cause serious side effects, such as swelling in the brain.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it intends for Medicare to cover the treatment, which will make the drug much more accessible to people who receive those federal benefits.

Shannon White, who leads the Greater Kentucky and Southern Indiana chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said they’re hopeful that private insurance companies will follow suit and provide coverage for lecanemab.

She talked Friday about why this is such a huge milestone.

“Alzheimer's was discovered in 1906, and this is the first drug that is addressing the underlying cause of Alzheimer's and other dementia,” White said. “So we are thrilled that there is now (FDA) approval, and hopefully people that are in the early stages of cognitive decline … will be able to get these treatments and really have more time with their families.”

More than 110,000 people in Kentucky and Southern Indiana are living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, she said. There also are around 250,000 caregivers supporting those people across the region.

Cooper said he and other professionals at Norton Healthcare have been working for months to plan out the process for how to determine who’s eligible to receive lecanemab and to then provide the IV infusions every two weeks to approved patients.

“It's a challenge I've waited 25 years for,” he said. “I really hope this is the first step to a whole new era in our field.”

He hopes Norton will be able to start treating patients with lecanemab within a few weeks.

In addition to Norton, White said the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging also will offer the treatment.

For anyone interested in the possibility of taking lecanemab, Cooper recommended they first speak with their primary care provider. He said they’ll likely get referred to a specialist after that.

Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.