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Unprecedented breakthrough in the hunt for a dementia drug within 'five years'

Senior British researchers spearheading efforts to find a cure say that research has entered 'a new era'

The next five years could bring unprecedented breakthroughs in the hunt for a dementia drug, leading scientists have said, as the health ministers of G8 nations prepare to meet in London for a landmark summit.

In a rallying call to politicians, senior British researchers spearheading efforts to find a dementia cure said that research had entered “a new era”, but urged ministers meeting in the UK for the first ever G8 Dementia Summit next week to double international funding on research.

Major progress has been made in recent years in understanding the pathology of dementia and scientists say the groundwork has now been laid for major drug breakthroughs in the next few years.

“I am more encouraged for the future now, than I have ever been,” said Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “We now understand far better, that the pathology of this disease starts early on, maybe 10 years before we see any symptoms. We now have the tools to image that pathology…that will enable us to investigate drugs that will affect it. I am full of hope that we are going to have a breakthrough in the next five years.”

Clinical trials of the Alzheimer’s drug solanezumab had already shown the potential for it to be effective in mild cases, he said, adding that the manufacturer Eli Lilly was now working on further trials to investigate its effect on patients with mild symptoms of dementia.

If successful, the drug could eventually be prescribed as a preventive before symptoms of dementia begin to show, delaying or halting the onset of the disease, in the same way that statins are currently prescribed to people at high risk of heart disease or stroke. 

“As soon as we get efficacy in one drug that will unlock so many other things,” Dr Karran added. “We’ll then have an understanding of the biomarkers that will help us bring through other drugs far more rapidly.”

Highlighting the urgency of scientists’ efforts to combat the disease, the Alzheimer’s Society published new figures revealing that the global burden of dementia has increased by 22 per cent in just three years. 44 million people worldwide now have the disease, a figure which is projected to rise to 76 million by 2030. In western Europe, incidence rates are on track to double by 2050.

Dementia is set to be high on the international agenda in 2014. Health ministers from the G8 group will meet next Wednesday in London for a summit that researchers hope will secure new commitments on funding and international collaboration in dementia research.

Spending on research lags behind that of other major diseases. In the UK the government has committed to spend £66m by 2015, but this is still one eighth of what is spent on cancer research, the Alzheimer’s Society said. Dementia costs the UK economy around £23 billion every year – more than cancer, stroke or heart disease combined, the charity said.

Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society said that dementia was becoming “the biggest health and social care challenge of this generation.”

“Lack of funding means dementia research is falling behind other conditions,” he added. “The G8 is our once in a generation chance to conquer this condition and we must see meaningful action after the talking is over.”