Boosting the search for new dementia treatments

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By Dr Laura Phipps | Monday 16 February 2015

When will we have a new treatment for dementia? It’s a question we get asked a lot. And understandably.

There’s been a long wait since the last dementia drug was made available to people – over a decade. Today, we launched the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Alliance, a £30m powerhouse of dementia drug discovery made up of a network of Drug Discovery Institutes at three of the UK’s leading universities for dementia research. The aim of the Drug Discovery Alliance is to channel innovative science towards new medicines as quickly as possible to provide new effective treatments for people with dementia.

‘Disease-modifying treatment by 2025’

As many readers of this blog will know, the dementia treatments that are currently available are limited. Most of them are recommended for us in treating Alzheimer’s, such as donepezil (Aricept), and while these can help with symptoms for a time, they don’t work for everyone and their effects can wear off as the disease develops.

At the G8 Dementia Summit, world health leaders pledged to find a ‘disease-modifying treatment for dementia by 2025’. This would be a treatment that didn’t just help with symptoms, but attacked the root cause of dementia – diseases like Alzheimer’s. The idea is that such a treatment would slow or stop the disease, helping to maintain people’s independence, identity and dignity for as long as possible. Such a treatment wouldn’t just benefit the 830,000 people in the UK with dementia, but the wider family network around them on whom dementia has a huge impact.

Developing new medicines

There are many approaches to helping people with dementia, through care improvements, preventions and psychological therapies. But medicines also play an important role.

It’s a long road to developing a new medicine and economists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown that to have the best chance of success in developing a new Alzheimer’s drug, you have to take as many parallel approaches as possible. The more potential avenues you explore, the better the odds of finding something life-changing sooner.

To really deliver a new treatment by 2025, we have got to capitalise on the high quality and creative science taking place in academic laboratories in universities up and down the country. We need to harness these innovative ideas and turn them into targets for new treatments. Then we need to put these targets into the hands of drug discovery experts who can develop them into potential medicines and test them to find those that hold the most promise.

A marriage of expertise

Our newly-launched Drug Discovery Institutes, based at the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and University College London, will marry this high quality science with expert drug discovery teams. By sharing ideas and resources, but maintaining a competitive edge, the Institutes represent a unique and transformative approach to dementia drug discovery – unrivalled in the world.

At the helm will be some of the world’s most renowned dementia and drug discovery scientists and we’ll attract 90 new researchers into drug discovery across the three Institutes. This is key to our promise to build capacity in dementia research, getting more brains behind this complex problem.

Learning lessons from cancer

It’s an incredible statistic that survival rates for cancer have doubled in recent years. It’s a testament to the investment, infrastructure and drug discovery work that’s been focused on this important disease. We are learning lessons from this success and know that with the right strategy and investment, we can make the same strides. The Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Institutes will build on the approach and success of similar initiatives in cancer research, which are now a producing promising new cancer drugs for clinical testing in patients.

Like cancer, dementia is caused by physical diseases in the brain and with the right support behind us, we are confident that within the next generation we’ll be able to treat diseases like Alzheimer’s as effectively as we can treat certain cancers today.

Watch our Director of Research Dr Eric Karran talk more about the Drug Discovery Alliance, and why it’s so unique:

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Dr Laura Phipps