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April 14, 2005
How Good Is Aricept, Anyway?
Pfizer and Eisai picked up some headlines on the news that their Alzheimer's drug, Aricept (donezipil) showed some effectiveness in delaying the onset of Alzheimer's. That used to be my field of work, although I've got no competing interest in that therapeutic area now. I make that disclaimer up front, because I'm not all that impressed by this new study.
Aricept is a cholinesterase inhibitor, part of the first wave of compounds that were brought in as Alzheimer's therapies. Inhibiting cholinesterase increases the amount of a key neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) that hangs around in the synapse, which should, in theory, lead to stronger signaling between neurons. But this is and always has been a brute-force mechanism, real back-of-the-envelope stuff, which I realized even when I used to work on something pretty similar.
We don't understand neurotransmission well enough to be sure that we're doing much good just by turning up synaptic signaling. To add to the problem, the relevant cholinergic neurons are among those being damaged by Alzheimer's itself, so the drug's therapeutic target is slowly disappearing. That's why the cholinesterase inhibitors are recommended for very early stages of Alzheimer's, and are considered useless for late stages of the disease.
And that's why Pfizer went out as early as possible, out to before patients had even shown signs of Alzheimer's at all. It appears that Aricept therapy helped slow the onset of the disease, among those who developed it at all. Problem is, the effect wasn't large, and after three years any benefit had completely disappeared. The placebo-treated Alzheimer's patients were in the same shape as the ones who had been getting Aricept all along. (Note that Aricept has been studied in non-Alzheimer populations before.)
You wouldn't know all this from a quick look at most of the popular press, though, which went with New Breakthrough headlines like "Drug is First to Delay Onslaught of Alzheimer's." (Science, on the other hand, went with "Study Questions Efficacy of Popular Alzheimer's Treatments", which is more like it.) I'm in the same camp, and it's the same one as the editorial from the issue of the New England Journal of Medicine where the study appeared. Aricept, the journal said, "may offer some benefit, but any such benefit is quite limited and apparently transient" Try turning that into something that'll make you sit past the commercial break. . .
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