Yesterday's disclosure in this paper that the world's leading drug companies are giving up on the search for a cure for Alzheimer's disease, following the failure of several high-profile trials, is grim news for the millions who will, in time, succumb to the condition. It is estimated that 36 million people worldwide were living with dementia in 2009, most suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and the number is set to grow to 115 million by 2050.
But it is not only sufferers who stand to lose, as the disease strips them of their dignity and personality. The human and financial cost is rising as populations age, imposing an ever-greater burden on the rest of us. Governments are starting to respond – with announcements by David Cameron in the UK, Barack Obama in the US and former President Nicolas Sarkozy in France of initiatives to improve management and treatment of the disease.
In Britain, we are especially poor at caring for people with Alzheimer's. Many sufferers end up in hospital because of the lack of support in the community. Some argue, rightly, that putting extra funds into improving care – increasing social work support, expanding day-centre provision – would deliver more benefit for patients than investing in drugs of limited benefit.
But we cannot avoid the fact that Alzheimer's, and other forms of dementia, are increasing rapidly as the population ages and, unless we find some means of curbing its growth, it may overwhelm our capacity to care for its victims. The search for new drugs must go on. But the drug industry, chastened by its recent failures, is switching focus to symptomatic treatments and abandoning the hunt for a "cure".
Alzheimer's takes 15 years to develop, and the cost and difficulty of researching treatments that must be started early in the disease's course to be effective is prohibitive. They cannot be supported by the drug industry alone. Public investment is required in basic science to deliver the breakthroughs from which the industry can deliver new treatments.
We spend 12 times more on cancer research than on researching dementia, yet dementia costs society twice as much. Cancer does not need less – but dementia must have more.