A new Alzheimer’s treatment, lecanemab, has been shown to slow memory decline and improve day-to-day function, but questions have emerged over whether patients will be able to access it.

The director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK has warned that the NHS is ‘not ready for a new era of dementia treatment’ as patients struggle to access specialist Alzheimer’s testing.

Dr Susan Kohlhaas celebrated the ‘exciting findings’ following a successful phase 3 clinical trial of lecanemab, which is the first time a drug has been shown to both reduce the disease in the brain and slow memory decline in clinical trials.

However, barriers to accessing specialist Alzheimer’s tests could prevent the drug from reaching the patients who need it, she added.

Dr Kohlhaas said: ‘It’s safe to say that the NHS is not ready for a new era of dementia treatment.  We estimate that unless there are drastic changes in how people access specialist diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s disease, only 2% of people eligible for drugs like lecanemab will be able to access them.’

Pharmaceutical company Eisai presented the results of a successful phase 3 clinical trial at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease Conference in San Francisco earlier today. The study included 1,795 people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) due to Alzheimer’s, who received a bi-weekly infusion of either lecanemab or a placebo.

The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, demonstrate that lecanemab reduced markers of amyloid – the protein that builds up in the brain in people with Alzheimer’s disease – in early Alzheimer’s disease.

The study also found that at 18 months, lecanemab had slowed disease progression by 24%, decline of cognitive function by 26% and decline of activities of daily living by 37%.

However, lecanemab also came with adverse side effects including infusion reactions, microhemorrhages, cerebral macrohemorrhages, superficial siderosis, headaches and falls.

However, Dr Kohlhaas stressed that the research represents ‘a major step forward for dementia research and could herald a new era for people with Alzheimer’s disease’.

She continued: ‘Although the benefits were small and came with significant side effects, it marks the arrival of a treatment that can slow the course of Alzheimer’s disease.

‘We recommend, through the new [Dame Barbara Windsor] Dementia Mission, the Government take urgent steps to bring together regulators, industry, clinicians and decision-makers in our health system to put a clear plan in place to ensure people in the UK are among the first in the world to access new treatments once they are licensed,’ she added.

The Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission was launched in August 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, adding an additional £95m in ringfenced funding to the £16m a year set to be allocated to dementia research by 2024.

In 2020, research led by University College London suggested that socioeconomic disadvantage, language and culture differences prevented minority ethnic patients from accessing the same quality of dementia care compared to white patients.

The study, which looked at the records of 53,000 people with a dementia diagnosis in the UK, found that Asian people with dementia were 14% less likely to receive anti-dementia drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors or memantine – and take them for 15 fewer days per year– than white patients.

Meanwhile, black patients who were prescribed antipsychotic drugs that treat dementia-related distress take them for about four weeks longer than white people in the UK – exceeding suggested limits.