The global research landscape 2018: hopes and highlights


By Dr David Reynolds | Wednesday 19 December 2018

Our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr David Reynolds looks back at key milestones in dementia research in 2018.

The past 12 months have seen many important developments across the dementia research landscape– a field that unites governments and industry with health services and research institutes in urgent action to tackle diseases that affect more than 50 million people around the globe.

Deep rooted misconceptions about dementia mean that the field is racing to catch-up with other disease areas where understanding and medical innovation has built up over decades of scientific investigation and sustained funding for research.

But things are changing. More people around the world recognise dementia research as a critical global endeavour that is driving real progress towards transforming lives.

Prize winning research

This change in attitudes was illustrated in March when the Danish Lundbeck Foundation awarded four pioneering dementia researchers the coveted Brain Prize, the world’s largest and most prestigious prize for neuroscience research. The award recognised vital breakthroughs in our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease that are now having far-reaching implications in the development of much needed new treatments.

Scientists of all nationalities are eligible for the prize and the fact that three of the four recipients are based in the UK reflects the country’s position as a global leader in the field.

Prof Bart de Strooper – A winner of the 2018 Brain Prize

Among the winners was Prof Bart de Strooper who, as the Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, now heads the country’s largest dementia research initiative. Earlier this year the Medical Research Council announced an additional £40 million of funding for this world-leading institute, taking the total up to £290 million, including £50 million committed by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Work got underway at the UK DRI in 2017, and it has been fantastic to see the institute really establish itself over the last 12 months. Across the six national centres more than 300 scientists are now engaged in over 50 scientific programmes tackling the most important questions in dementia research. The new funding will support an iconic multi-million-pound new building at UCL to host the central hub of the UK DRI, allowing the centre to further increase the number of researchers and staff working to take on our greatest medical challenge.

Towards new treatments

While the UK DRI mainly focusses on crucial questions relating to the underlying causes of dementia, I’m happy to say that progress is also being made by researchers working further along the road to new treatments.

At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago this July, the pharmaceutical companies Eisai and Biogen presented positive results from a phase 2 clinical trial of the potential Alzheimer’s drug, BAN2401.

In a study involving more than 800 people in the mild stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the drug successfully reduced levels of the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid and led to a slower decline in memory and thinking skills. The drug will now have to enter even larger final stage, phase 3 clinical trials and Eisai and Biogen are discussing next steps with regulators.

Governments stepping forward

We’ve seen further good news coming out of the US this year, with law makers approving a $425 million increase for dementia research funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH is the world’s largest funder of medical research and this major funding increase reflects the growing sense of urgency among governments the world over.

In September, Alzheimer’s Research UK called for UK government spending to increase to 1% of the annual cost of dementia. While spending on dementia research has increased in recent parliaments, the Policy team at Alzheimer’s Research UK works to make sure dementia stays on the political agenda and that research funding better reflects the impact that dementia has on individuals, families and our economy.

Encouragingly, the government recently announced up to £79 million of Industrial Strategy funding to establish a landmark five million-strong research cohort. This group of volunteers will take part in research aimed at revolutionising the way major health conditions, dementia among them, are detected, diagnosed and treated. The initiative is bringing together the NHS, industry, leading research funders and charities including Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Alongside the creation of the new cohort, we are now leading a programme of work to help transform the way dementia is diagnosed, uniting the best minds in digital data and technology who will help to realise the full potential of this powerful new cohort of volunteers.

Industry engagement

Government and charity funding are essential for driving progress in dementia research, but the pharmaceutical industry is also an important piece of the puzzle. We’ve seen really encouraging announcements this year with pharma companies, both large and small, committing valuable resources to dementia research.

In January, leading drug discovery expert and former Alzheimer’s Research UK Trustee Dr Fiona Marshall was appointed to head up a multi-million-pound Discovery Centre for the pharmaceutical company MSD- its first UK-based centre in more than 10 years to have a focus on neuroscience research.

While in-house research at pharmaceutical companies is crucial for the development of new dementia drugs, they are also key players in collaborative research initiatives including our Drug Discovery Alliance and Dementia Consortium. A number of major pharma companies now support the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), a unique venture capital fund that invests in companies working to develop new treatments for dementia.

We helped to launch the DDF to create a broader, more diverse funding environment for dementia research. The fund received a huge boost at the end of last year with a $50 million investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and completed its financing plan this year with $60 million from AARP. It has been fantastic to see this initiative flourish, establishing partnerships with a growing number of innovative companies and, in October, with the UKDRI.

Momentum is building

Earlier this month I attended a meeting of the World Dementia Council in London. The event marked five years since the UK used our presidency of the G8 group of nations to plan a global response to dementia. It was fantastic to hear about all the progress that has happened since then, but there can be no doubt about the scale of the challenge that still lies ahead.

The 2013 G8 summit set an ambition for the first disease-modifying dementia treatment by 2025 and next year marks the half-way point of this timeframe. For breakthroughs like this to be possible, we need to see even more ambitious change in 2019 and for more people to join the global movement against dementia.

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About the author

Dr David Reynolds

David Reynolds was the Chief Scientific Officer of Alzheimer’s Research UK up to 2019. Previously David worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 18 years at Merck Sharp & Dohme, Lundbeck and latterly Pfizer, where he was the Cambridge Neuroscience & Pain research site head. He has held a variety of R&D leadership roles with responsibilities ranging from exploratory biology, through drug discovery, early clinical development and business development in multiple disease areas, but with a focus on neuroscience and pain.