Study underway for new drug aimed to prevent Alzheimer’s disease

by Molly Shen, KOMO News Anchor | Wednesday, November 9th 2022

Important note: Please understand that Spencer does NOT have Alzheimer’s at this time. He qualified for the study because he has the APOE4 gene from both parents AND his brain scans show Amyloid plaque buildup. Neither of these guarantees he will eventually develop Alzheimer’s but they do increase the likelihood.

Watch the 3 minute KOMO TV spot featuring my role in a drug trial study for Alzheimer’s.
Below is a transcript of the video.

SEATTLE, Wash. — We could be on the cusp of a landmark development in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are investigating a drug that might protect people who are at risk. If it works, it may prevent Alzheimer’s from ever taking hold.

Spencer Beard enrolled in the drug trial, called the AHEAD study. He is fifth in a line of seven kids, raised by what he calls a classic stay at home mom.

“She was the mother of seven children, so her life was busy,” Beard said as he laughed while looking at a family photo. Once all the kids were out of the house, Mary Alice Beard put her mind to work in a new way.

“She was in her 50s and she started exploring all these art forms, and she loved it,” Beard said.

Beard pointed out pottery that his mother made and described other art she explored. But out of all the explored art, Navajo rug weaving became her biggest artistic passion. Her fingers stayed nimble as she aged, but her memory was slipping.

“We noticed first when she was dropping the names of the kids,” Beard said. “To their chagrin, her two daughters were lost first. She’d recognize them but didn’t know who they were.”

Mary Alice descended into Alzheimer’s disease. She was still alive, but in many ways, her children had already lost her.

“If you can’t talk with people, you can’t relate. A lot of what makes you human is gone, I think,” Beard said. “My last memory of her is laying in a fetal position on her bed, not being able to do anything.”

Through his mother’s final years, Beard has seen what could be his own future. One of his brothers has now been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and Beard is also at risk.

“Biomarker studies done with blood and brain scanning show that he’s got the process happening that leads to Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Dr. Thomas Grabowski, director of the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center. “We now know that these changes are identifiable 10 or 15 years in advance of any symptoms. So the study that he’s in is a prevention study. Can we prevent the emergence of memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease by removing the amyloid proteins in the brain?”

The study involves a monoclonal antibody called lecanemab. The antibody recently grabbed headlines in another study, with early results indicating it could help slow the progression of the disease. Scientists plan to reveal more data from that study later this month.

“We don’t yet have a rigorously statistically proven preventative for Alzheimer’s or an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease,” Grabowski said. “We’ve had medications for awhile that we have described as symptomatically beneficial, but not which slow down the natural history of the disease. So what we may have here is a class of medicines that actually slow down the disease process.”

Beard doesn’t know if he’s receiving the drug or a placebo, and while he said he hopes he is, “getting the good juice,” he is comfortable with either. If he’s on the placebo but the drug shows promise, he believes he’ll eventually receive it.

“I hope that it leads to ideally a treatment that is viable. But at least if not, a treatment they can massage and make viable. It’s miraculous the things they can do,” Beard said.

Grabowski has been working with Alzheimer’s since the early 1990s, and said he didn’t expect it to take this long to make significant progress in finding a preventative treatment.

“It’s really difficult,” Grabowski said. “We are now appreciating how complex Alzheimer’s is.”

That’s why Grabowski and his colleagues are so excited about the prospects of lecanemab. He said if they successfully slow the progression of amyloid proteins in the brain, they could cut Alzheimer’s disease in half.

“It’s not a magic bullet, but it could be a really important first step,” Grabowski said.

Beard is also hopeful he could help change the fate of his own family. He and his siblings share a family history rooted in creativity, adventure, and community. But of their common traits, the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s shouldn’t be one of them.

“If they can keep the decline from happening, that’s a good place to be,” Beard said. “I’m excited about that.”

The AHEAD study is still enrolling volunteers between the ages of 55 to 80. If you’re interested in enrolling, visit the study website for more information on eligibility.

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