Amid the looming health threats aging baby boomers face -- cancer, depression, diabetes and heart disease -- the one modern medicine is least prepared to treat is Alzheimer’s disease. With no cure in sight, researchers who have been scrambling for limited government funds are now looking elsewhere for money.
And the stakes are high. No new compounds targeting the disease have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 2003. Meanwhile, the FDA gave the green light to nine new cancer medicines in 2014 alone. Today’s handful of treatments for the debilitating form of dementia can stave off the disease’s worst symptoms, including confusion and memory loss, only for six months to a year.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you cancer’s not important, but with Alzheimer’s disease, there are a lot of hidden costs,” says Debby Tsuang, clinical core co-associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at University of Washington.
Between now and 2050, the country’s 75 million baby boomers and their successors will face age-related diseases in unprecedented numbers as the second-largest generation in the nation’s history. About one in eight baby boomers, or almost 10 million, will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Patients with the disease usually live eight to 10 years after diagnosis and are frequently either admitted to nursing homes as the disease progresses or rely on loved ones to care for them at home. Without a cure, the Alzheimer’s Association warns the direct costs of caring for patients in the U.S. could balloon to $1.2 trillion by 2050 from $214 billion now.
Tsuang and her staff largely rely on federal grants to do their work as the government’s frontline researchers of the disease. Scientists at her center compete for money with those at 28 other centers throughout the U.S. that are also supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA). And, lately, Tsuang has noticed the requests posted by NIA have favored research that looks into the disease’s earliest stages. That focus limits some of Tsuang’s staff in seeking funds for new or ongoing projects geared toward basic research or late-stage treatments.
Scientists and patient advocates would like to see research that approaches the disease from many angles, and important discoveries in the past few years have given them no shortage of ideas about worthy avenues to pursue. Their biggest challenge has been figuring out how to pay for all of it. Tsuang says new research indicates one-third of Alzheimer’s disease cases may be preventable through lifestyle changes, but scientists at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers across the country may not choose to study this approach because it falls outside the NIA’s funding priorities.
There’s a wide gap between the federal government’s funding of Alzheimer’s disease research and the amount that its own advisers say will be necessary to find a cure.
The government’s advisory council on Alzheimer’s disease has said the Congress must ramp up federal funding to $2 billion a year by 2025 to spur breakthroughs. Last year, Alzheimer’s research received less than one-half of that -- $562 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- while cancer research received $5.4 billion in funding and studies into heart disease and diabetes each received just over $1 billion. Next year, the government has pledged to boost investment into Alzheimer’s research to $638 million, but an increase in funding by that same amount every year until 2025 would still cause the government to fall about $600 million short of its long-term goal.
So Alzheimer’s researchers are doing what their colleagues focused on chronically underfunded diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Parkinson’s disease have done in the past -- turning to public-private funding models and seeking contributions from foundations to support their work. Over the weekend, the University of Washington announced a $6 million gift from the Ellison Medical Foundation to the school’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center that will jump-start its first foray into precision medicine, an approach that focuses on developing customized courses of treatment for patients based on their genetics and lifestyle factors. The donation is a fraction of the $20 million the school hopes to raise.
Elsewhere, research groups are also leaning on diverse sources of funding to investigate Alzheimer’s disease. In the U.K., an industry-led $100 million partnership called the Global Dementia Discovery Fund that will serve as a venture-capital fund to invest in the world’s most promising Alzheimer’s-related research launched this month.
Alhough the U.K. government contributed $22 million to the effort, GlaxoSmithKline PLC topped that commitment with a $25 million contribution. Four other pharmaceutical companies also chipped in, and their collective donations far outpaced British government support.
In the U.S., leaders of a dozen Fortune 500 companies have joined the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease as a project of the nonprofit group USAgainstAlzheimer’s. George Vradenburg, founder of the parent organization, has lately made it his mission to collect CEOs of influential corporations who can advocate for more public and private dollars to fast-track Alzheimer’s disease research. He estimates that, globally, there is only about $700 million available for research into Alzheimer’s disease -- which is not even one-half of that which the federal government’s advisory council has requested for the U.S. alone by 2025.
“It is clear beyond words that innovative medicine in this area is not going to come from government, so we turned our attention to engaging with business and industry,” Vradenburg says. The members are mostly pharmaceutical and health-care companies, but he convinced executives at the Bank of America Corp. that they should take up the cause, as well.
Surya Kolluri, managing director of policy and market planning at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says the risk that Alzheimer’s disease poses to both the bank’s clients and their finances can no longer be ignored. “We’re all reading about how many people have it and how many people will have it,” Kolluri says. “It’s going to become such a big phenomenon that we’re all going to begin to pay attention to it, including financial-services organizations.”
Vradenburg and Andy Seig, head of global wealth and retirement solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, point out in a recent op-ed piece published by the Hill that the total assets of all high-net-worth clients in the U.S. are worth more than $20 trillion. If only a fraction of this money were leveraged for research into Alzheimer’s disease, it could easily meet and surpass the goal set by the federal advisory council.
Vradenburg says he believes more of the world’s wealthiest individuals will launch their own foundations and donate to research on Alzheimer’s disease in coming years, as the family of Savers Inc. Founder William Ellison did in the case of the University of Washington. As of now, Tsuang says, there is much more room for improvement.