By Sy Mukherjee
October 24, 2017

The story of experimental Alzheimer’s treatments has been a grim one in the last several years. High profile drug candidates from Eli Lilly, Merck, and others have fallen flat, some after showing initial promise in a field that hasn’t had a true breakthrough in well over a decade. But what if an entirely different kind of approach could prove successful—like a dementia-focused treatment mechanism akin to the kinds of popular, new next-generation cancer therapies that use the body’s immune system to fight disease?

That’s the question biotech giant AbbVie will try to answer as part of its new partnership with the smaller drug maker Alector. The firms have struck a $200 million-plus research deal to find out if immunotherapy can be effective in fighting Alzheimer’s.

“We seek to advance the field of immuno-neurology as a new therapeutic modality for dementia and neurodegeneration. We anticipate that immuno-neurology therapies will have as much of an impact on brain disorders as immuno-oncology is having on cancer,” said Alector CEO Arnon Rosenthal in a statement.

Immunotherapy has been one of the hottest fields in recent cancer drug development and driven billions in new sales for companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and others. Drug makers are rushing into the space even though it often applies to very specific segments of cancer patients because of its promise in some of the hardest-to-treat cancers and potential to be combined with other therapies.

The AbbVie-Alector deal is based on the premise that neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s are, like cancer, also linked to the immune system, and that boosting it could change the course of dementia. The studies are still in their earliest stages.

There’s a far later-stage Alzheimer’s drug currently in the works, too: Biogen’s aducanumab, which Goldman Sachs recently identified as one of the first “disease-modifying” (rather than just symptom-treating) therapies for the condition which could be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If so, it would be a breakthrough that could change patients’ lives and bring in billions to the company; but the sobering reality of Alzheimer’s failures may give even the optimists pause.

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