A medication commonly given to stop the spread of prostate cancer in men showed promise in slowing memory loss in women with early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, known as Lupron Depot (or lepuprolide acetate), alters the production of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.
“This is the first time any therapy has been shown to stabilize memory loss over a year,” said Dr. Craig Atwood, co-lead author of the study and associate professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
But the study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was small and preliminary. More testing is needed to determine whether Lupron might be beneficial as an Alzheimer’s treatment. The drug can also have serious side effects, including bone pain, hot flashes and weight gain. Over time, the effects of the drug may increase the likelihood of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Many drugs that show promise in initial trials turn out not to work when they are tested in larger numbers of people — and ultimately are shown to do more harm than good. More funding is urgently needed to spur the development of new and more effective treatments for Alzheimer’s.
For the study, researchers enrolled 109 women, aged 65 and older, who had mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. All were given an established Alzheimer’s drug, such as Aricept (donepezil). Such drugs may ease symptoms for a time but do not stop the downward progression of disease.
Over the next 48 weeks, the women continued to take Aricept or a similar drug. But some got injections of Lupron at a low dose (11.25 milligrams of leuprolide) every 12 weeks, while others received a high dose (22.5 milligrams). A third group received “dummy” placebo injections.
Researchers were interested in giving the women Lupron Depot because in some earlier studies, men who were taking the drug for prostate cancer were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The drug is also sometimes given to women with breast cancer or with endometriosis.
The study found that after a year, women treated with both Aricept and high doses of Lupron had almost no deterioration in memory and thinking skills, as assessed by memory testing. Those taking Aricept and low doses of Lupron showed only slight deterioration, while the memories of those receiving placebo injections continued to decline.
“This promising combination therapy warrants testing in early and late stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Atwood said. However, he notes, the company that conducted the study, Voyager Pharmaceutical Corporation, is no longer in business. Without funding, “it remains to be seen whether this therapy will ever be tested in further clinical trials and reach the market,” he said.
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