Series questions Alzheimer's drugs' usefulness, development prospects

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A huge shadow was cast over the development and use of drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease Wednesday in a prominent article in the New York Times.

The report noted that many drugs to treat Alzheimer's have not lived up to expectations, adding that some experts feel real progress may be "decades" away. Quoting experts at a recent gathering at Johns Hopkins University, the article noted that there is little agreement about the drugs' effectiveness (anywhere from a 1 in 10 chance of helping, to slightly better) or how long they should be sampled (from six weeks to six months, for example).

Typical medication costs run about $120 per month, earning the drug industry about $1.2 billion annually, according to the article. Some 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's, with the number expected to soar over the next two decades.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic at the Johns Hopkins meeting on current prescribing habits for Alzheimer's was Dr. Thomas Finucane, a professor at the school and a geriatrician.

"In 10 years, we'll be embarrassed by how much of this stuff we prescribed," Finucane said of the five drugs currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of Alzheimer's.

He was among the experts particularly angry about a study published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society last July that found a certain drug could delay nursing home admission by up to two years. The study was partially funded by the maker of the drug, and some of the conclusions drawn were wrong, some experts contend.

The New York Times article is the first in a series about Alzheimer's entitled "The Long Goodbye: Drugs and Desperation."