The revelation that drug companies are giving up research on treatments for Alzheimer’s disease appears to be nothing less than shameful. Alzheimer’s is a hideous condition that exacts a brutal toll on both sufferers and their families. It is already one of the developed world’s most pressing health problems. Demographics may soon make it the most pressing.
There is no shortage in the market for treatments. The trouble is that the cost of developing new treatments and then getting them through the regulatory systems of developed countries is extremely high – more than £1bn for a typical treatment, according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. The approvals process is rigorous, as it should be, but it causes costs to escalate towards the end of a treatment’s development leaving drug companies with huge bills should they fall at the final hurdle. Those costs are then recovered through the pricing of new drugs but the problem remains. It is now 12 years since the last new treatment was licensed in the UK.
Pharmaceutical firms develop close to 90 per cent of new drugs, but they are not charities. Their job is to earn a return on them for their shareholders. So, while it is dismaying that research has ground to a halt, it is hardly surprising that they have chosen to focus on more profitable lines of inquiry. Railing against commercial reality is a pointless exercise.
Yet, the need to take action on Alzheimer’s remains urgent. Quite apart from the toll in human misery it exacts, the costs are truly staggering. Alzheimer’s Research UK puts them at £26bn this year, but more rapid advances in other areas are facilitating a longer lifespan that means many more people will be claimed by the disease. As such that number could swell to nearly £35bn in a little over 10 years’ time.
A new model is therefore required. Alzheimer’s Research UK’s launch of a Drug Discovery Alliance, with the creation of a network of £30m research centres involving 90 scientists at Oxford, Cambridge and University College London that will spearhead the search for new treatments, is therefore an important development. Such a collaborative effort is vital if progress is to be made, and further work along these lines would be welcome. So would the involvement of the state. There are always calls upon the public purse, but the potential time bomb that lurks under the social care budget as the numbers of those afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease grows ought to concentrate minds.
But the industry too could play a role here. It stands to benefit one way or another. Someone will have to produce and market any new treatments that come from this effort. There is already data sharing and collaborative work going on in some of medicine’s more challenging areas, areas that have proved resistant to breakthroughs. However, more needs to be done. The industry needs to recognise that if it cannot do the work on its own, then it could at least make greater efforts to assist those that can. Corporate social responsibility demands it. So does common humanity.
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