“It’s hard not to see it as anything other than momentous” – our CEO reflects on a year of progress
It’s been a difficult year for so many of us, with a fraught economic climate, political uncertainty, and highs and lows of all sorts – not least the temperature. And in the aftermath of the pandemic, continued pressure on the NHS and social care have made life incredibly tough, particularly for many people affected by dementia who were hit so hard by the impact of Covid.
But when I reflect on an amazing year of progress in dementia research, it’s hard not to see 2022 as anything other than momentous.
I’ll never forget the moment I heard about the breakthrough so many of us had hoped for. It was the middle of the night on 28 September, and I was feeding my three-month-old baby, when a colleague in the US shared a link to a press release: a new drug, born from decades of rigorous scientific study of the diseases that cause dementia, that actually seemed to work. The following day was a rollercoaster of media interest and excitement. Our regular Trustees’ meeting became a moment of shared celebration and a chance to look to a new era. Emotions were high.
Lecanemab, of course, isn’t the end of the story. It represents, as experts have said, ‘the end of the beginning’. For years, we’ve been firm in our belief that research will yield breakthroughs that will change things for people with dementia. Now we have proof that this is the case – proof that diseases like Alzheimer’s can and will be beaten. Lecanemab shows we’ve gained some traction on this most terrible and feared of diseases, and the years of research into dementia are finally paying off. A huge amount of this research has been funded by members of the public – and I want to thank each and every one of you who’s supported dementia research for your collective belief in our cause.
We need to be clear about lecanemab. It has yet to be approved by drug regulators, either here or in the US. This may be a bumpy journey. Lecaneamb’s effects are modest – a 27% slowing of progression over 18 months, when given to people with early Alzheimer’s disease. That’s good, but will it be good enough? This benefit needs to be considered in light of the drug’s side effects, which can be serious for some. Science can, and must, do better – both in terms of developing drugs that are even more effective, and by treatments for people with later stage Alzheimer’s, or with dementia caused by other, non-Alzheimer’s diseases.
But all that said, what excites me so much is what lecanemab’s arrival will trigger.
For a start, it means we can talk with renewed urgency about the way dementia care needs to change. Our health service is simply not yet ready to deliver drugs like lecanemab – it doesn’t have the staff, the equipment or the structures necessary. Lecanemab’s arrival should act as a catalyst to accelerate work on all these fronts, and we’ll be pressing hard for this to happen throughout 2023.
But I hope it will also mean renewed investment in, and focus on, dementia research, particularly from the pharmaceutical industry. There are more than 140 dementia drugs in various stages of clinical development right now, and lecanemab represents the beginning of what we hope will be a steady stream of successes in years to come.
That’s why the other big development in 2022, here in the UK, is also so significant: confirmation of the UK government’s Dementia Mission, using a ‘taskforce’ approach we at Alzheimer’s Research UK have advocated for. Inspired by the success of the Covid vaccine taskforce chaired by Kate Bingham, we hope the Mission will bring together all the people necessary to bring effective new dementia treatments to people in the UK as quickly as possible. I’m looking forward to working with the Mission team as it gets into its stride in the new year.
Of course, progress in 2022 doesn’t start and end with lecanemab. We’ve seen continued promise on so many other fronts too, notably in the field of diagnostics, with researchers homing in on what would be a huge breakthrough – a simple, cheap blood test that can accurately identify Alzheimer’s disease. Although not quite ready for clinical practice, we heard from researchers at two flagship US conferences – AAIC and CTAD – that progress in developing such tests continues apace. You’ll be hearing more from us in the coming year about our plans to help hasten their arrival.
Beyond research, 2022 was also a welcome year of growth for us as a charity. In September we published our 2021/22 Annual Report, which showed that, thanks to a record-breaking fundraising year, we were able to invest more than £23m in research – our most successful year yet. And later that month, we announced a new Chair of our board of Trustees, former CEO of WH Smith Kate Swann. I can’t wait to start working with Kate, who will bring a wealth of experience to the charity, and I want to reiterate my thanks to our outgoing Chair, David Mayhew for his contribution. We’re thrilled that he will be moving into the role of Vice President and continuing to be part of the ARUK family.
Other highlights of 2022 for me personally have included By Your Side, Scott Mitchell’s wonderful book about his life with Dame Barbara Windsor, including her struggle with dementia. And it was also great to attend the celebration event to mark five years of our Drug Discovery Alliance, and hear about all the incredible work going on to bring forward a new generation of dementia medicines.
Looking ahead to next year, I can’t help but be optimistic about progress against dementia. Lecanemab will continue its journey through various regulatory hurdles, and I’ve got everything crossed that it can be assessed as quickly and efficiently as possible. We’re also eagerly awaiting results of another new Alzheimer’s drug, donanemab, in spring. And we’ll have much more to shout about from our Think Brain Health campaign in the new year, so keep an eye out for that.
So here’s wishing you all a very happy Christmas and New Year, and thank you all for your continued support for our vision of a world free from the harm and heartbreak of dementia. As the curtain draws on 2022, it certainly feels like that world is a step closer.
About the author
Hilary is Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, which is a charity working at a global level towards a world where people are free from the fear, harm and heartbreak of dementia. The organisation’s aim is to raise awareness of the diseases that cause dementia, to increase dementia research funding and improve the environment for dementia scientists in the UK and internationally.