New Alzheimer's drug shows promise

Joice Williams
Joice Williams
CBS News

(CBS News) A glimmer of hope emerged Tuesday in the fight against Alzheimer's disease. An experimental drug has been shown to actually halt the mental decline in some patients. The results of this small study are only preliminary.

Six years ago, Joice Williams was given the diagnosis of a disease with no cure. Her husband Sterling says, at first, sticking with daily routines helped her cope with the symptoms.

"She gets up and makes breakfast every morning. She does her clothes, she irons," Sterling said.

Williams is part of a small group of people to try an experimental drug to slow the progress of the disease. It's called IVIG and contains antibodies from people who don't have Alzheimer's. The antibodies appear to attack Amyloid, the plaque that damages the brain, and is the hallmark of Alzheimer's.

Of the 24 patients in the study, 11 showed less decline than the placebo group. Doctors were also trying to determine the best dosage, and they may have found it in four patients who showed a surprising result: No decline in cognitive function over three years.

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"Patients who are in this stage of Alzheimer's disease, typically if they are untreated, will decline below where they start in three to six months," says Dr. Norman Relkin of Weill Cornell Medical College, who led the study.

The initial results are positive, but the drug is costly: Treatment is at least $50,000 per year.

"This may not be the ultimate solution in terms of its cost and availability, but if it points the way towards a less expensive and more widely available treatment then we'll be winning the battle against the disease," says Relkin.

Sterling Williams, meanwhile, is grateful for the initial efforts.

"The fact that her deterioration has slowed so much, I think it's all because of this study, and so I'm thankful every day," Williams said.

With such a small study, the benefit could just be from chance. So we really need to wait for the results of a larger trial that's already underway. Those are expected within a year.

The excitement around this treatment is that it seems to slow the disease.

It turns out that changes within the brain of people who have Alzehimer's begin 10 to 20 years before symptoms are noticed. Now that we have ways of finding those high risk patients early on, there are trials underway to see if giving drugs much earlier - to prevent Alzheimer's - is more effective, but the results won't be available for years.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook