Marginal Medicine

Will a promising treatment for Alzheimer’s receive the attention it deserves?

In late 2014, medical researchers Craig Atwood and Richard Bowen approached the national Alzheimer’s Association with news of their latest paper, a study into Lupron Depot, an expensive yet commonly prescribed prostate cancer drug. The two have published about 10 papers over the last 20 years examining its effectiveness in treating the neurodegenerative Alzheimer’s disease – their evidence suggests that Lupron delays memory loss when paired with a common Alzheimer’s drug called Aricept. On this day, they were after grant funding for the “Phase 2” trial needed to push the link closer to widespread use, and they were somewhat hopeful, as the association had given them $150,000 for similar research in 2006.

But come 2014, the panel’s reception was much cooler. Its members “waved us out,” says Atwood, research director at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“They wanted to see more data, and that’s perfectly fine,” he says. But gathering additional data takes money, and vice versa. Without the backing of a large pharmaceutical company, this novel therapy promising to greatly slow Alzheimer’s disease could go nowhere.

Traditional research into the causes of Alzheimer’s tends to focus on tiny proteins called beta-amyloids that cover neurons in the brain with a kind of plaque. This gunk is believed to damage the cells, chipping away at the mind’s cognitive powers and long-term memories. By suppressing a certain hormone, Lupron appears to slow the production of beta-amyloids and, by extension, the disease’s advance. Atwood and Bowen’s latest study, published in January, found that among 109 post-menopausal women, the Lupron-Aricept combo seemed to markedly slow memory loss over the course of about a year. Bowen, a doctor who teaches at the Medical University of South Carolina, is already prescribing the two drugs to his Alzheimer’s patients and says it “seems to significantly halt or slow the progression, but until there’s a placebo group, you really can’t say.”

“Richard’s and my goal is to get this drug to market, not to make money.” – Craig Atwood
Lupron, aka leuprolide acetate, has a long track record. For roughly 30 years, it’s been prescribed to both women and men for a range of maladies, including prostate cancer, endometriosis and early puberty. Drawing on long-term studies of its effects, Bowen and Atwood concluded that, for the hundreds of thousands of men who had taken Lupron, it had lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 34-55 percent, a finding that prompted Bowen to co-found a Lupron-focused company, Voyager Pharmaceutical Corp., in 2001. After raising $80 million from investors, Voyager came close to commercializing a drug but declared bankruptcy in 2012, and the Alzheimer’s-related patent reverted to Bowen.

He and Atwood say they need at least $2 million to carry out the next stage of their research, which will more rigorously examine the combination’s effects on patients. For this, the two applied to a new crowdfunding platform, called “Give to Cure,” for clinical research, but learned in September that while their proposal had risen to the level of finalist, it didn’t receive funding.

Not being affiliated with a large drug company seems to have hurt their chances: As Dallas-based Give to Cure will collect 3 percent of any recipient’s profits, “They had a preference for drugs and researchers associated with big pharma,” says Atwood. “Richard’s and my goal is to get this drug to market, not to make money.”

Give to Cure declined to comment on why the Lupron project had come up short. “It’s our policy not to divulge such information to outside parties,” says executive director Suzanne Kwok.

Tired of fighting for scraps, Atwood and Bowen are now looking for a seat at the table: They plan to reach out to drug makers to drum up interest, or form another company through which they can raise investment. “It’s difficult to find a company to take this on,” says Atwood. Given the glacial pace at which drug research moves, Atwood says they’re running short on time – Bowen’s “utility” patent on leuprolide acetate could expire in about six years.

‘Marginal Medicine’ appears in the November 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Claire Hanan worked at the magazine as an editor from 2012-2017. She edited the Culture section and wrote stories about all sorts of topics, including the arts, fashion, politics and more. In 2016, she was a finalist for best profile writing at the City and Regional Magazine Awards for her story "In A Flash." In 2014, she won the the Milwaukee Press gold award for best public service story for editing "Handle With Care," a service package about aging in Milwaukee. Before all this, she attended the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and New York University's Summer Publishing Institute.