SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Nearly six million Americans likely live with Alzheimer's disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Many don’t yet know they have the disease.
On Wednesday, the FDA approved marketing for the first in-vitro test for Alzheimer's, analyzing fluid collected by a spinal tap to identify the degenerative disease early and possibly cheaper than other methods, like PET scans.
Drew Wyman is the executive director of Maine’s Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Every advancement in fighting the incurable disease comes with caution, but he’s thrilled with the level of research in the field right now.
"Diagnosis sometimes happens after symptoms have already been around for a while, and we know that pathology starts way earlier — 20 years earlier, maybe even 30 years earlier," he explained. "But what a great option for doctors to have in their toolkit to say, 'We could diagnose this earlier without having to do a PET scan or something costly.'"
Dr. Eric Dinnerstein agrees the new test could be another helpful tool. But the PET scan (which looks like an MRI) can map out the brain and show him much more detail than a fluid sample in a microscope. Though, he admits, this new test will likely be relatively less expensive.
"A spinal tap, traditionally, with its associated tests, is cheaper," he said. "But, it’s still very expensive. Other existing tests are covered by Medicare/Medicaid. An amyloid-based PET scan is traditionally not covered by Medicare/Medicaid, and it can cost more than a few thousand dollars."
On the treatment side, one year ago, in June, the FDA gave accelerated approval to Aduhelm, a treatment developed by Boston-based lab Biogen meant to catch Alzheimer’s early and reduce the fluids that carry its degenerative effects. Some Maine patients participated in Aduhelm's early release, with some recorded success.
But the treatment lacked support from the FDA’s advisement committee at the time, and Medicare refused to cover its use outside of clinical trials.
Dinnerstein said he’s working to bring clinical trials to Maine Medical Partners. Wyman said, despite its baggage, it could be the beginning of breakthroughs to come.
"We know the first drug treatment for any disease is not going to be a cure. It’s probably not gonna be that great," he stated. "But, the fact is, it’s started, and it is invigorating the field, and stuff’s happening."