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Lilly drug for Alzheimer's gets limited Medicare coverage

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Medicare will pay the costs of brain imaging that uses a Eli Lilly and Co. drug to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease only for patients participating in approved clinical studies, regulators proposed.

But Lilly officials said they will push ahead with the first-of-a-kind imaging chemical, despite the mostly negative ruling by Medicare officials.

There isn’t enough evidence to show the scan will benefit all people with dementia, though in some cases it may help diagnose whether a patient has Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said last week in its proposed coverage decision.

The decision had been eagerly anticipated by the industry. Lilly says the drug should help reduce misdiagnosis of the disease.

Medicare, the U.S. health plan for the elderly and disabled, will reimburse patients for a scan if they are part of an approved clinical trial for the prevention, treatment or better diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the agency said.

The $3,000 test, approved last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, uses Lilly’s Amyvid imaging agent to trace a brain protein linked to Alzheimer’s. The disease affects 5 million Americans, a number that patient advocates say may double by 2050. In younger patients or those where the diagnosis is unclear, the benefit of the scan may be greatest, scientists have said.

In its proposed decision, the agency set out criteria for clinical studies that would allow Medicare recipients to be covered for the costs of the brain scans, including whether using the test would spare unnecessary treatments or improve the patients’ quality of life.

The ruling is an unexpected setback for the product after European Union regulators endorsed the chemical in January. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for sale in 2011.

"Lilly remains steadfast in our request for Medicare coverage of beta-amyloid imaging agents for the appropriate patient population," said Wei-Li Shao, director of the company's Alzheimer's business, in a statement.

Eli Lilly and Co. paid $300 million in 2010 to acquire the drug and its developer, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals Inc.

Avid Radiopharmaceuticals CEO Daniel Skovronsky said in a statement the Medicare ruling "may stifle future innovation aimed at improving diagnosis."

Doctors currently diagnose Alzheimer's disease by observing patients and administering physical and mental tests. The disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the most common form of dementia, a term for brain disorders that affect memory, judgment and other mental functions.

Alzheimer's attacks neurons in the brain, leading to problems with memory, thinking and behavior. There is no cure for the disease, and scientists are not even sure what causes it.

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