Trials and tribulations: Neurology research during COVID-19


With some pivotal trials on hold, the COVID-19 pandemic is slowing the pace of research in Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and multiple sclerosis (MS).

However, researchers remain determined to forge ahead – with many redesigning their studies, at least in part to optimize the safety of their participants and research staff.

Keeping people engaged while protocols are on hold; expanding normal safety considerations; and re-enlisting statisticians to keep their findings as significant as possible are just some of study survival strategies underway.

Alzheimer’s disease research on hold

The pandemic is having a significant impact on Alzheimer’s disease research, and medical research in general, says Heather Snyder, PhD, vice president, Medical & Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Many clinical trials worldwide are pausing, changing, or halting the testing of the drug or the intervention,” she told Medscape Medical News. “How the teams have adapted depends on the study,” she added. “As you can imagine, things are changing on a daily basis.”

The US Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (U.S. POINTER) trial, for example, is on hold until at least May 31. The Alzheimer’s Association is helping to implement and fund the study along with Wake Forest University Medical Center.

“We’re not randomizing participants at this point in time and the intervention — which is based on a team meeting, and there is a social aspect to that — has been paused,” Dr. Snyder said.

Another pivotal study underway is the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s study (the A4 Study). Investigators are evaluating if an anti-amyloid antibody, solanezumab (Eli Lilly), can slow memory loss among people with amyloid on imaging but no symptoms of cognitive decline at baseline.

“The A4 Study is definitely continuing. However, in an effort to minimize risk to participants, site staff and study integrity, we have implemented an optional study hiatus for both the double-blind and open-label extension phases,” lead investigator Reisa Anne Sperling, MD, told Medscape Medical News.

“We wanted to prioritize the safety of our participants as well as the ability of participants to remain in the study … despite disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Sperling, who is professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The ultimate goal is for A4 participants to receive the full number of planned infusions and assessments, even if it takes longer, she added.

Many Alzheimer’s disease researchers outside the United States face similar challenges. “As you probably are well aware, Spain is now in a complete lockdown. This has affected research centers like ours, the Barcelona Brain Research Center, and the way we work,” José Luís Molinuevo Guix, MD, PhD, told Medscape Medical News.

All participants in observational studies like the ALFA+ study and initiatives, as well as those in trials including PENSA and AB1601, “are not allowed, by law, to come in, hence from a safety perspective we are on good grounds,” added Dr. Molinuevo Guix, who directs the Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders unit at the Hospital Clinic de Barcelona.

The investigators are creating protocols for communicating with participants during the pandemic and for restarting visits safely after the lockdown has ended.


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