Five years ago, during the height of his leadership, then-Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom took on the world’s “collective denial [of] one of the greatest challenges of our time … one that steals lives and tears at the hearts of families, but that relative to its impact, is hardly acknowledged.”
Cameron was drawing the world’s attention to the “quiet crisis” of dementia.
“We need an all-out fight-back against this disease, one that cuts across society,” Cameron said at the time. “We did it with cancer in the 70s and with HIV in the ’80s and ’90s. We fought the stigma, stepped up to the challenge and made massive inroads into fighting these killers. Now we’ve got to do the same with dementia.”
Tomorrow morning at the 2017 BIO International Convention in San Diego, I will host a fireside chat with the former British leader and ask him about his decision to focus the next chapter of his public life on his work as President of Alzheimer’s Research UK. For Cameron, the mission is personal. He watched his parents’ long-time friends and his predecessor, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, experience what has been called “the long goodbye” in the sunset of their lives.
As Prime Minister, Cameron launched the Dementia Challenge in 2012, with the goal of finding breakthrough treatments or a cure by 2025. Ever since, he has worked to boost dementia research funding, make improvements in dementia care, and foster greater compassion and understanding for patients.
Dementia is the clinical name for a longer list of conditions that lead to the deterioration of a person’s thought process. Symptoms include memory loss, language difficulty, confusion and disorientation. The condition worsens with time and can lead to total disability and dependence. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60 to 70 percent of dementia cases. The most common risk factor is aging, as a majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. However, it is not just a disease related to advanced age. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s.
The disease is devastating not only for affected patients but also for their families and caregivers. People living with Alzheimer’s can live for many years, even decades, as symptoms worsen. It is a neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive brain cell death over time.
There is no early warning for patients or families, no reliable diagnostic test result that can predict who might be at the greatest risk. Alzheimer’s cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death, through a microscopic examination of brain tissue checking for plaques and tangles. Plaques are found between dying cells in the brain, from the build-up of a protein known as beta-amyloid plaques. The tangles are within the brain neurons from disintegration of another protein called tau.
Biotechnology researchers are hard at work developing new strategies to diagnose, prevent and treat Alzheimer’s.
- Biomarkers are promising pathways that can lead to early diagnosis. Examples being studied include beta-amyloid and tau levels in cerebrospinal fluid and brain changes detectable by imaging. Scientists believe these indicators may change at different stages of the disease.
- Neuroimaging is a cutting-edge area of research aimed at finding new approaches to diagnose Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages. Several new imaging tracers have been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in recent years. Neuroimaging may also offer new approaches to monitor disease progression and assess the effectiveness of new drug regimes.
- Medicines currently in development are exploring ways to change the disease process by altering the brain abnormalities caused by Alzheimer’s. These abnormalities are seen as possible targets for new drugs that could slow the progress of the disease. Some researchers believe a “cocktail” of medications may hold the greatest potential to treat the underlying cause of the disease, similar to state-of-the-art treatments for HIV/AIDS and some forms of cancer.
Dementia exacts terrible human, financial and societal costs. The World Health Organization estimates that 47 million people worldwide are suffering from a dementia-related condition. That number is expected to triple by the year 2050.
Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States contracts the disease. The Alzheimer’s death rate increased by 89 percent between 2000 and 2014, and U.S. health and hospice costs for patients with dementia are projected to quadruple to more than $1.1 trillion by 2050. The emotional, physical and financial stress on caregivers is enormous; last year alone, family and friends provided 18.2 billion hours of unpaid care to their loved ones.
In a blog, Cameron said the first battle he will take on as President of Alzheimer’s UK is to “win a deeper public understanding.” He says more people need to see Alzheimer’s as a treatable
condition that can be overcome with the right medical research, rather than an “inevitability” or “natural condition of aging.”
Obviously, former heads of state of major powers have many options when they leave office. The biotechnology community is grateful that David Cameron has made our cause his cause, too.