July 17, 2012 -- A small study of a treatment that stabilized four Alzheimer's patients for three years is making big waves.
It's not often that a study of a drug being tested in fewer than two dozen people grabs the attention of top experts gathered for a major medical meeting.
But that is what's happening at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Vancouver this week. That's where researchers report that for the first time a decades-old drug made from human plasma appears to prevent the decline of memory in people with Alzheimer's disease -- for three years.
In the typical person with Alzheimer's, you would expect to see memory loss within months, says researcher Norman Relkin, MD, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. "We saw no memory loss in three years."
Before getting overly excited, note that just four of 21 people studied benefitted to this degree. Only 16 of the 21 even chose to complete the study.
"Still, it's remarkable," says Relkin, who consults for some drugmakers.
"Within a year of starting currently available treatments, you would expect memory and thinking to decline," he says. You would expect patients to start having trouble dressing themselves, for caregivers to feel the burden on them growing. And you would expect to see mood swings and other undesirable changes in behavior, Relkin tells WebMD.
"Yet in these four patients -- all given the same dose of the drug as an infusion twice a month -- scores on tests of all those measures were unchanged at three years," he says.
Relkin says that he is amazed at what some of his patients are able to do. One takes creative writing, another gardens, he says.
Relkin says he is not a rogue cowboy trying to get everyone to try the new treatment. He urges caution and insists that further study is needed.
In fact, Relkin says he would not have even shared his findings with the medical community at this point were it not for the fact that preliminary results of a late-stage phase III trial pitting IVIG against placebo in nearly 400 patients also suggest it is working. The final analysis is due out in the first half of next year.