New Alzheimer drug offers hope, some relief for caregivers but is no cure
Tue Dec 14, 2004
by HELEN BRANSWELL

TORONTO (CP) - Health Canada has approved for sale the first drug aimed at improving life for people with moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease - and, by extension, the people who look after them.

The drug, sold under the brand name Ebixa, does not cure or reverse the damage done by the devastating disease, which is estimated to affect about 238,000 Canadians. But it does appear to slow cognitive decline in some patients who respond to it, allowing them to contribute to their own care for longer and easing the demands on their caregivers.

"It may improve some of the activities of daily living. It may improve cognition. Based upon the information that has been released, it may improve the quality of life for both the person with the disease as well as the care provider," said Ilona Horgen, director of support services and education for the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

"It's really improving the quality of life with the person with Alzheimer's disease, even if that means that maybe the individual can recognize who his spouse is or her spouse is and they haven't been able to do that.

"And it does also appear that there may be a decrease in the number of hours spent in caregiving."

The drug, whose generic name is memantine, has been on the market in Europe and the United States for varying periods of time. A number of Canadian patients have been taking the drug, going to lengths to import it from jurisdictions where its maker, Lundbeck, previously sought licensing approval, said Dr. Tiffany Chow, a Toronto neurologist.

Chow, who has no links to the company, said the drug is another tool with which to try to manage symptoms of Alzheimer's and can be used in addition to an existing class of drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors, which are marketed to treat early stages of the disease.

Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl are cholinesterase inhibitors.

"I guess one of the important things about all of these drugs which have been approved for Alzheimer's disease is that they have not been approved because they reverse the disease process like an antibiotic cures infection," said Chow, who treats dementia patients at Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

"Instead, they are meant to alleviate some of the symptoms, despite the fact that the disease is progressing."

"So it is one more thing that we can offer to people to try to help them. And in that respect, it's a good thing. It's not the be-all and end-all."

Chow noted that not all patients respond to memantine. But in those who do respond, it can alleviate the anguishing attacks of anxiety, hallucinations and psychosis.