'Cautious optimism' in NZ as US approves first drug in two decades to treat Alzheimer's disease

The United States Food and Drug Administration has conditionally approved a drug which promises to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

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It is the first new drug in almost 20 years to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Source: 1 NEWS

The move to green light Aducanumab, providing further clinical trials are carried out while it's being used, has been hailed as a landmark by some experts. Others, however, say the results only appear to be marginal.

It’s only suitable for those with mild Alzheimer's when the damage to brain function is still limited.

“What I’d say is, cautious optimism,” Alzheimer's New Zealand chief executive Catherine Hall told 1 NEWS when asked about her reaction to the drug’s approval overseas.

She said people living with dementia often ride a rollercoaster of emotion when it comes to new drugs being announced.

“They get told there’s a brand new cure and then very quickly afterwards their hopes are dashed. It’s really important to recognise this is early days and there’s still a lot of data to be collected.”

Aducanumab — a monthly injection which treats both the symptoms and underlying cause of Alzheimer's — works to clear amyloid build-ups on the brain.

Amyloid is a protein which can form toxic deposits.

Medsafe told 1 NEWS it’s yet to receive an application to approve the drug but it is watching international developments “given the infrequency of new medicines being approved” for the disease.

Around 70,000 New Zealanders have dementia and the number is predicted to almost triple by 2050.

Alister Robertson, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2014, said any drug that slows progression is a good thing but he worries about New Zealand’s ability to catch the disease early enough.

"It will be critical to get an early diagnosis and I don’t think the health system is geared for that. There is no dementia plan in place," he told 1 NEWS.

Alzheimer's New Zealand is calling on the Government to fund and implement its dementia action plan, which includes delivering better services and support for those diagnosed; being more inclusive; and using the proven treatments and preventatives to reduce the number of people in the country being diagnosed with the disease.

"People living with dementia are amongst the most vulnerable in New Zealand. The numbers are getting bigger faster, and most people who are living with dementia are missing out with services," Hall said.

"People cannot get the help that they need."