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Combing through the data of its most recent setback in Alzheimer’s disease, Merck (MRK) sees a glimmer of hope that a once-failed drug might come through for patients in the earliest stages of disease.

Merck’s drug, verubecestat, was virtually indistinguishable from placebo in a trial involving roughly 2,000 patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s, the company revealed Thursday. Over 18 months, patients saw their cognition, function, and dementia grow worse regardless of whether they got  verubecestat or a sugar pill, and no matter whether their disease was mild or moderate. The results were so decisively negative that Merck ended the trial five months early.


But verubecestat lives on in an ongoing study of similar size, this time targeting patients who have tested positive for Alzheimer’s but are yet to show major symptoms. And, poring over the drug’s failure in moderate Alzheimer’s, Merck believes it has reason to be optimistic.

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