FDA Approves Controversial Alzheimer’s Drug


Amid significant controversy, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the anti-amyloid agent aducanumab (Aduhelm, Biogen/Eisai) for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), disregarding the recommendation by its own advisory panel not to approve the drug.

In November, the Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee voted eight to one against approving the drug because, based on clinical trial results, evidence of efficacy was not strong enough. Two other members said they were uncertain on the issue of efficacy.

In a company release, Michel Vounatsos, chief executive officer at Biogen, said: “This historic moment is the culmination of more than a decade of groundbreaking research in the complex field of Alzheimer’s disease. We believe this first-in-class medicine will transform the treatment of people living with Alzheimer’s disease and spark continuous innovation in the years to come.

Rocky Road

The road to approval has been extremely rocky for aducanumab, an anti-amyloid-beta human monoclonal antibody, previously known as BIIB037.

As reported by Medscape Medical News, two phase 3 trials evaluating the drug were initially scrapped in March 2019 because of interim futility analysis. At the time, Biogen released a statement saying that aducanumab was unlikely to meet primary endpoints in the ENGAGE and EMERGE randomized controlled trials.

However, in an about-face 7 months later, Biogen and Eisai announced that a  new analysis showed the drug met its  primary endpoint of reduction in clinical decline, including cognition and function, in the EMERGE trial.

Although ENGAGE still didn’t meet its primary endpoint, data from its new analysis “supported” the EMERGE findings, the drug companies said at the time.

However, 1 year later, a majority of the members of the FDA’s advisory panel were against the drug’s approval. Details of that decision were published online March 30 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As reported by Medscape Medical News, a Viewpoint written by three of the committee members notes that results from the drug’s only large positive clinical trial fell short.

“There is no persuasive evidence to support approval of aducanumab at this time,” they write.

Groups such as Public Citizen’s Health Research Group not only agree with the Viewpoint’s authors, they also criticized the FDA for its collaboration with the drug’s manufacturers on briefing documents and more.

On April 1, Health Research Group members sent a letter to the US Secretary of Health and Human Services requesting the temporary suspension of the FDA’s neuroscience chief, Bill Dunn, MD, because of his role in supervising the collaboration.

Alzheimer Association Weighs In

The Alzheimer’s Association has been a proponent of the drug throughout its development.

Ahead of today’s news, the organization noted in a statement that a decision to approve “would be historic” because it would make aducanumab “the first drug to slow Alzheimer’s disease” and would mark the beginning of a new future for AD treatments.

“The Alzheimer’s Association urgently supports FDA approval of the treatment based on clinical trial results that showed a 22% reduction in cognitive and function decline — something that could make a meaningful difference” for patients with AD, it said.

Kristen Clifford, chief program officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, told Medscape Medical News at the time that approval would be considered a “victory” for patients with AD and for the field overall.

“For individuals who would potentially be eligible for the treatment, this drug could mean more quality time. Slowing decline, particularly in early diagnosis, could add weeks or months or maybe even years of active life,” Clifford said.

“If approved, this would really be a landmark moment. And it could provide hope for those living with Alzheimer’s and their families,” she added.

Clifford noted that approval of this type of drug would also underscore the importance of early detection for AD. “This treatment would encourage earlier diagnosis of the disease,” she said.

In a new statement released just after approval for aducanumab was announced, the organization said that today’s news is a win-win for all patients with AD and their families.

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