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Drug May Slow Memory Loss in Early Alzheimer's

Medication Approved to Treat Patients With HIV May Do Double Duty for Dementia
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How Egrifta Works

Egrifta is a close copy of a chemical that's already made by the body called growth-hormone-releasing hormone. As the name implies, it stimulates the production of human growth hormone (HGH). Human growth hormone, in turn, triggers the release of a whole cascade of other hormones including insulin and its close cousin, insulin-like growth factor.

Insulin is probably best known for its role in regulating blood sugar, but it also has important work in the brain. In the brain, insulin stimulates the growth of new nerves and protects existing nerves from damage. Insulin levels in the brain fall with age, and previous studies have found that they're especially low in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's and other kinds of dementia.

The same group of researchers involved in the study has been testing whether inhaled insulin can reverse memory loss in Alzheimer's patients.

Egrifta may boost insulin in the brain less directly, and that could be a good thing, Baker says.

"What's so nice about this particular strategy is that it stimulates a whole cascade of hormone activities. Once this whole cascade is stimulated, it behaves normally, as it does when we're younger adults. So all we're kind of doing is boosting the system and letting it do what it does best," she says.

"It also shuts itself off when levels of one hormone or another get too high," Baker tells WebMD, so the levels always stay within a more normal range.

Risk, Side Effects, and Cost to Be Considered

Should a larger, longer study confirm the benefits of the medication for patients with early memory loss, it wouldn't come cheap.

Baker says that given at the dosages used in the study, the drug costs about $750 a day, or more than $22,500 for a 30-day supply.

"Of course that's not feasible," she says. "No health plan would ever pay for this."

She says drug companies are hard at work trying to find a way to make a less expensive version.

Side effects were reported by 68% of people on Egrifta -- twice the rate of adverse events experienced by those on the placebo injections. Side effects were mostly mild. They included skin reactions like itching, redness, and stinging around the injection site. It was also common for people to report increased joint pain and stomach upset.

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