‘Failures aren’t for lack of trying’: The quest to find a drug for Alzheimer’s

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In February, pharmaceutical companies Roche and Eli Lilly announced that two experimental drugs they had developed for Alzheimer’s disease had failed in clinical trials. Roche’s drug, gantenerumab, and Eli Lilly’s solanezumab joined more than 100 other potential Alzheimer’s drugs that have flopped, including aducanumab, a much-heralded drug from Biogen.

More than 200 promising leads have fallen through just in the past decade. There has been an ongoing search for Alzheimer’s drugs since the 1990s, but “the long and short of it is that it’s not been successful,” says Lon Schneider, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

These failures aren’t for lack of trying. Instead, they are evidence that the disease and its causes are much more complex than researchers first appreciated. “… Things looked simpler than they really are,” says Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

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Instead of having a single drug for Alzheimer’s, we might need multiple treatments that target each of the different ways that it can develop and manifest. The drug pipeline has become more diversified, with clinical trials looking at other targets such as inflammation, the immune system and metabolic processes that might be involved in Alzheimer’s, says Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

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