Progress on research and treatment for dementia has been “achingly slow”, an expert says ahead of a London summit.
Dr Dennis Gillings said a pledge by G8 countries to find a cure or treatment by 2025 would be “impossible” without better incentives for investment.
Dr Gillings, appointed world dementia envoy by UK PM David Cameron six month ago, called for faster and cheaper clinical trials for dementia drugs.
Hosting the event, the PM will call for a “big, bold global push” on dementia.
He is expected to pledge a new drive by the UK to discover new drugs and treatment for the condition, and a focus on how to bring forward specific proposals on patent extensions as well as how to give patients earlier access to new drugs.
Mr Cameron is expected to tell the summit: “In the UK alone there are around 800,000 people living with dementia, worldwide that number is 40m – and it is set to double every 20 years.
“We have to fight to cure it. I know some people will say that it’s not possible, but we have seen with cancer what medicine can achieve.”
Six months since the UK hosted a G8 summit on the disease at which the 2025 target was set, the prime minister is speaking at a follow-up event in central London where he will commit to accelerating progress on dementia drugs.
Experts and health officials from other G8 countries are expected to attend.
Dr Gillings warned: “Just as the world came together in the fight against HIV/AIDS, we need to free up regulation so that we can test ground-breaking new drugs.
“The amount of scrutiny by regulators is considerable, but there probably needs to be a special case made for dementia by regulators so they can help move things through more quickly…
“Simplify the clinical trials process or simplify the sort of data being demanded.”
Dr Gillings added that a major barrier to research was the “ratio of risk to reward” facing pharmaceutical companies investing in dementia.
Only three out of 104 dementia drugs assessed in clinical trials since 1998 have received regulatory approval.
Globally, research and development losses in dementia since then have reached around $50bn (£29bn).
A key reason for the lack of movement in this area, along with limited funding, is simply that research is extremely difficult.
“The brain is our most inaccessible organ,” said Tim Parry from Alzheimer’s Research UK.
“We’re looking to find the fault in the world’s biggest supercomputer (our brains) but we’re doing it in the dark. It’s an absolutely massive challenge.”
The charity is announcing a £100m research campaign as part of the summit, which will include the opening of a £2m Stem Cell Research Centre in Cambridge.
The centre – a collaboration between researchers at the Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge and University College London – aims to further understanding of the causes of Alzheimer’s and screen potential new treatments.
Its chief executive, Rebecca Wood, said investment would “feed innovative academic discoveries into the drug development pipeline, helping treatments to reach people with dementia more quickly”.
“It’s imperative that efforts to remove regulatory barriers are successful to allow new dementia research partnerships to thrive and deliver on their promise,” she said.
The government will also announce the Medical Research Council’s new UK Dementias Research Platform (UKDP) which it hopes will “speed up” research into dementia.
The £16m public-private partnership aims to enable earlier detection of dementia, improved treatment and – ultimately – prevention of the disease.
The key project will be the world’s biggest study into dementia, involving two million people in the UK who scientists have already been tracking as part of other studies.
It will look at possible links between dementia and our lifestyles and other illnesses, rather than only focussing on changes in the brain.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC Breakfast the government was putting “the spotlight on dementia”.
“We’re asking the big question – if you’re going to find a cure for this horrible disease… then what do you do to galvanise the drugs companies, to galvanise the other countries?” he said.
Mr Hunt added: “We’ve got this ambitious target of 2025 and we really want to go for it.”
Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Today’s announcements mean the UK is leading the fight in dementia research but our global partners will be crucial to fulfilling the promise of the G8.”
Dr John Gallacher of Cardiff University, director of the UKDP, said neurodegeneration could be linked with changes in parts of the body “seemingly unrelated” to the brain.
He said it was “imperative” to look at the different stages of developing the disease.
“By looking at the links between development of the disease and other factors – such as diet or illness – we hope to unearth targets for new drugs or new uses for existing drugs,” he added.
Carol Franklin-Adams, whose husband Patrick has Alzheimer’s disease, said: “We’re all familiar with large campaigns of other charities but it’s good to see dementia research starting to gain the recognition it deserves.
“It’s heartbreaking to have a loved one with dementia, watching them slip away in front of your eyes.
“That very little can be done for someone with dementia today is the most tragic part of all, and while we can help with loving care, we remain powerless against the disease itself.”
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