AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly were working together on lanabecestat, a drug meant to treat people suffering from early and mild forms of Alzheimer’s © Bloomberg

AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly are to halt a global trial of a drug meant to treat people suffering from early and mild forms of Alzheimer’s disease after a panel found the treatment was unlikely to meet its goal.

The decision is the latest setback for attempts to find a cure for the disease that afflicts millions worldwide as the global population ages. Current treatments available for Alzheimer’s, which accounts for about two-thirds of dementia cases, can only slightly ameliorate the effects; no “disease-modifying” medicine has been successfully developed.

The pharmaceuticals groups chose to halt the two large trials of the drug lanabecestat after an independent monitoring committee concluded that the primary targets were “not likely” to be met.

The news represents a fresh blow to a type of drug called beta secretase cleaving enzyme (BACE) inhibitors.

Johnson & Johnson in May scrapped a trial of another BACE inhibitor due to safety concerns. In February Merck announced that it was ending a big late-stage trial of the same category of medicine, after a monitoring panel concluded it was unlikely to help patients in the earliest stage of the disease. The drug had already failed to work on people with mild or moderate forms.

“The complexity of Alzheimer’s disease poses one of the most difficult medical challenges of our time and we are deeply disappointed for the millions suffering from this devastating disease,” said Daniel Skovronsky, president of Lilly Research Labs.

Dr Skovronsky made clear the company remained focused on finding a treatment, saying it was “dedicated to Alzheimer’s disease research as we have been for the last three decades. We won’t give up on finding a solution for Alzheimer’s patients.”

The AstraZeneca-Eli Lilly molecule received fast track designation in 2016 from the US Food and Drug Administration, giving the alliance that was founded in 2014 the ability to expedite its research.

Alzheimer’s disease, which mostly affects older people and is fatal, is the most common cause of dementia in Western societies, according to the World Health Organization. WHO estimated in 2012 that there were 35.6m people living with dementia worldwide, with that number expected to triple by 2050.

Pfizer announced in January it was pulling out of research to find drugs for Alzheimer’s and for Parkinson’s, the degenerative brain disorder.

Menelas Pangalos, executive vice-president of AstraZeneca’s Innovative Medicines and Early Development Biotech Unit, said the company was “saddened by this outcome as our researchers are working tirelessly to find a solution for the many people who are impacted by this devastating disease.”

He said the company was “committed to ensuring our findings can be used to inform further research in the Alzheimer’s community, given the importance of finding a treatment for this disease”.

AstraZeneca said the discontinuation of the trial was not expected to have a material impact on its 2018 financial guidance.

Letter in response to this article:

Alzheimer’s: trials of single agents are doomed to fail / From Jeffrey Fessel, University of California, US

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