alzheimer brain

Alzheimer’s brain: healthy versus diseased

Just last week, we wrote about how drug development costs are keeping obesity drugs off the market. This week, we take a look at Alzheimer’s disease and the drug industry. More than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, at a cost of more than $203 billion to the nation. That number that’s expected to hit $1.2 trillion by 2050[1]. As drug development costs rise, pharmaceutical companies still battle to find a pill that can help people with Alzheimer’s disease.  It’s not a battle they are winning.  At least, not yet.

In the past fourteen years, only three drugs have been approved for Alzheimer’s disease, and more than 100 new drugs have been halted in development[2].  This makes drug development for Alzheimer’s disease one of the worst gambles a pharmaceutical company can make.

There are only five approved drugs on the market for people with Alzheimer’s disease, none of which address the cause of the disease to slow its progression.  Part of the problem is that researchers don’t have a good handle on how to actually slow its progression.  Part of the problem could be that pharmaceutical companies have been focusing on mid- to late-stage Alzheimer’s patients, something the FDA is trying to change.  Even in the face of high drug development costs, the market for a pill that will slow the progression of Alzheimer’s is big enough that pharma keeps their pipelines open for Alzheimer’s research.

Drug development costs can indeed be staggering for Alzheimer’s disease.  Roche’s Genentech is planning a record $100 million trial for Alzheimer’s therapy this spring[3].  The trial will take place primarily in Colombia, and will involve 100 individuals who have a specific genetic mutation linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s.  They plan to target this high-risk population with their amyloid-inhibiting antibody (crenezumab).  The study will be important for the broader field because it will shed light on the true significance of amyloid plaque formation in disease development and progression.  Realistically, drug development costs for Alzheimer’s probably won’t go down in the immediate future, but refocused efforts on early-stage prevention might bring more drugs to clinic.


1. Alzheimer’s Assn latest facts and figs report.

2. R. McBride.  Pharma counts just 3 Alzheimer’s drug wins in 13 years (101 losses!).   FierceBiotech.  September 14, 2012.

3. R. McBride.  Genentech readies for groundbreaking $100M trial of Alzheimer’s therapy.  FierceBiotech.  Dec 14, 2012.