How should we talk about Alzheimer’s drug studies?

STAT The Readout – “Hope for Alzheimer's sufferers as scientists develop new drug to treat dementia,” says the Mirror. “'Important' Alzheimer's drug to reduce protein in the brain could be in pharmacies by 2020,” according to the Express. And “Alzheimer's treatment within reach after successful drug trial,” per the Guardian.

What's all the hubbub about? Just this: Preclinical data from a small clinical trial were published in Science Translational Medicine. The drug in question, Merck’s verubecestat, has shown early, unproven signs that it can cut off the production of beta amyloid plaques, which are widely believed to play a role in the brain-destroying effects of Alzheimer’s. Whether it actually, like, works won’t be known until well into next year, when Merck is scheduled to present results from a large, late-stage study.

Which is to say it’s maybe a little early to herald “hope for Alzheimer’s sufferers” or declare a treatment to be “within reach.” Scientists generally scoff at hype-heavy headlines, understandably worried that they’ll plant unrealistic expectations in the minds of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families.

But drug developers are wary, too, of more realistic coverage that dwells on the long odds of success in the field. More than 99 percent of Alzheimer’s treatments have failed in clinical trials over the last decade, as almost any good reporting on the subject will tell you. Emphasizing that fact, however, can be discouraging to patients who might otherwise choose to participate in a clinical trial, researchers say. If everyone believes Alzheimer’s studies are doomed, they’ll be doomed by apathy.

So maybe let's all take a step back.

Image citation: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0

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