What will it take to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease?
Tuesday, 31st October, 2017
IN LESS than one generation, Alzheimer's disease has grown from a relatively unknown disorder to a global health crisis.
Currently more than 50 million people are affected worldwide, a number likely to double every 20 years.
Sadly, there is not much we can offer in the way of treatment and even less in the way of a cure.
The need for more effective treatments and possible cures has never been more urgent. We have to change our approach, because the way we've been tackling Alzheimer's disease hasn't worked so far.
Meanwhile, significant advances have been made in reducing deaths from the other two major health issues of our time - cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Applying the same strategies used so successfully for these diseases to Alzheimer's might just accelerate our progress in finding a cure for this awful disease.
In 1971, cancer was the second leading cause of death in the US. The National Cancer Act (1971) saw the creation of the National Cancer Program, established cancer research institutes around the country and provided separate funding for cancer research.
Described as a "war on cancer", this initiative has resulted in improvements in the cancer survival rates every year for the last 15 years. We need a similar initiative in publicly funded Alzheimer's disease research.
There is still so much we don't know about Alzheimer's and what triggers the disease process. A better understanding of the disease will lead to more effective treatment.
Significant investment now will have an enormous impact on health spending in the future.
Even a 5 per cent reduction in the number of people with Alzheimer's in Australia will result in a saving of over $120 billion in the next 50 years.
We need large, global studies to identify factors that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's.
The US Framingham Heart Study established the risk factors that predicted heart disease. The INTERHEART study proved that these risk factors were the same no matter where in the world you lived, what your ethnic background was or whether you were male or female.
The outcome of these studies has led to a 70 per cent drop in deaths from cardiovascular disease.
The Australian Imaging, Biomarker & Lifestyle (AIBL) Study of Ageing is an excellent example in Alzheimer's research.
This study followed more than 1100 healthy, elderly Australians over nearly 10 years to determine what health and lifestyle factors may be linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Results from this study are helping to shape our understanding of Alzheimer's and the risk factors for the disease.
Larger studies, gathering data from many different countries, are needed to determine with certainty risk factors that may be contributing to Alzheimer's disease.
We need to raise the bar in advocacy and activism from patient support groups to increase public awareness, pressure governments to increase funding for research, and to drive societal change in how we care for people with dementia.
The power of public figures, like (former British prime minister) Margaret Thatcher and (late actor) Robin Williams, to increase awareness is vital.
Angelina Jolie and Kylie Minogue's public battle with breast cancer increased the number of women presenting for mammograms and probably saved some lives.
Often however, it's those who get angry about how a disease affects their loved ones that are the most effective. Samuel Johnson's passionate campaign for his sister Connie has raised over $7 million for cancer research.
There is a whole lot more we need to do to beat Alzheimer's, but fundamentally we need a better understanding of the disease and knowledge of what puts us at risk of Alzheimer's disease.
We need the families of those suffering from Alzheimer's disease to raise their voices louder, and get angry, to make our society aware of the critical need for progress in treatment and prevention.
We have seen these strategies work for heart disease and cancer; we now need to make them work for Alzheimer's disease.
* Bill Ketelbey is chief executive of Actinogen Medical, which launched the largest global Alzheimer's disease drug study of its kind in March. The study, a phase 2 clinical trial of the drug Xanamem, is testing whether it can inhibit excess cortisol production in the areas of the brain most commonly associated with the early development of Alzheimer's, such as the hippocampus and frontal cortex.
The XanADu trial will recruit 174 patients across Australia, the UK and US. Results are expected in 2018.