First drug to slow Alzheimer’s disease gets full FDA and Medicare approval for early-stage cases; drug is still in clinical trials at UK

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted full approval for the first drug to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, opening the door for Medicare to pay for it.”This is the first medicine ever that actually changes the disease in the brain, removes a component of the disease and can extend quality of life for patients who are developing and who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Greg Jicha, director of clinical trials at the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, said at a news conference on Friday. 

Jicha stressed that the drug is not a cure, but instead has been shown in clinical trials to slow the disease process by 27% to 40%. 

Lecanemab, marketed by Japanese drug maker Eisai and U.S. partner Biogen under the brand Leqembi, is an antibody that targets amyloid plaques, which are found in brains of people with Alzheimer’s. It is administered twice a month, intravenously; the firms have estimated treatment will cost $26,500 a year. 

The drug has been on the market since January 2023 under an accelerated approval from the FDA but was not broadly covered by Medicare. Following the FDA’s full approval of the drug, Medicare, which primarily serves adults age 65 and older, will now cover it for those who qualify. 

Before the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made that announcement, Jicha said the approval would make coverage more likley by other insurers, including Medicaid, which is a federal-state program.

Jicha also said he hopes Esail will have patient-assistance programs to ensure that anyone who qualifies for the drug has access to it. 

“I really think it behooves all of us to ensure that this medicine is accessible to everybody,” he said. “No matter what their socioeconomic status, no matter what their geographic limitations are, everyone who has early Alzheimer’s disease deserves the opportunity as long as the medicine is going to be safe for them.”Dr. Jim Jackson, a retired pediatrician from Morehead, participated in an 18-month lecanemab study at UK and is now part of what his wife, Sharon, called an “extension study.” 

“I felt that it was really a good opportunity to be part of something that can improve life for many, many people,” he said at the news conference. Later adding, “I would be very happy to recommend this drug. I’ve been tickled to death to be in the study.” 

Jicha said there are some side effects to the drug, including amyloid-relating imaging abnormalities (ARIA), typically a temporary swelling and/or bleeding in certain areas of the brain that usually resolve over time. He said people with two copies of a well-known Alzheimer’s risk gene may be more at risk of ARIA. 

Sharon Jackson said her husband has responded well to the drug and has had no side effects. When he started the clinical trial, she said, “Jim had a little bit of memory issues and I can plausibly say that it has not progressed very much. . . . I can see that this medication, from what I understand about Alzheimer’s, seems to be holding him pretty steady.”

Who qualifies for the drug?

The medication will only be available to those in the early stages of the disease, and doctors willhave to verify that there is a buildup of amyloid in the brain before they can prescribe, Jicha said. Also, he said the drug must be administered by specialists who understand how to provide the treatment and to monitor for safety. 

“This medicine is only for those with mild memory problems, what we call mild cognitive impairment or folks that are in the mild stage of Alzheimer’s,” Jicha said, because benefits are uncertain for those in “a more moderate or severe stage.”

The drug is not available to people at risk of Alzheimer’s, but Jicha said ongoing clinical trials are evaluating the usefulness of the drug for this group.   

The Alzheimer’s Association promoted early detection and diagnosis in its press release celebrating the full approval of lecanemab. 

“With this approval, early detection and diagnosis are even more critical to ensure individuals receive the most benefit at the earliest point possible. If you or a loved one is experiencing memory changes, the Alzheimer’s Association strongly encourages speaking with a health care provider for a thorough evaluation and diagnosis and to discuss treatment options,” says the release. 

In Kentucky, 75,000 people 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to increase by 15% in the next few years, to 86,000 in 2025, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Further, the association says 11.2% of people aged 45 and older have subjective cognitive decline.

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Photo: Dr. Jim Jackson of Morehead receives an infusion of lecanemab at the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. (UK photo)