Searching for dementia treatments: Collaborating to speed up progress

Dr Reynolds, Alzheimer's Research UK.

It’s more than 100 years since Alzheimer's disease – the most common cause of dementia – was first discovered. It was in 1906 that Dr Alois Alzheimer identified the distinctive changes in the brain that we now know as the hallmarks of the disease. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that breakthrough molecular and genetic research helped pinpoint one of the key biological processes behind the disease, a finding that has fuelled much of the drug discovery effort in Alzheimer’s over the last two to three decades.

Unfortunately though, drug development for dementia has lagged behind many other health conditions. The last new medicine for Alzheimer’s was launched 15 years ago, but even the drugs that are currently available are limited, and we still lack a disease-modifying therapy. That’s why at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we have made it our mission to bring about the first life-changing treatment for dementia by 2025.

Drug discovery for dementia has been particularly challenging, in part because a historic lack of funding for research has hampered our ability to gain a detailed understanding of the diseases that cause it. The slow and progressive nature of diseases like Alzheimer’s means that clinical trials take longer to carry out, meaning drug development is more costly and time-consuming than it is for many other conditions. Coupled with a relatively high failure rate for previous trials, it’s little wonder that as a sector the pharmaceutical industry has scaled back investment in this area. If we’re to encourage companies to continue investing in this crucial challenge, we need a different approach. That’s why at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we’ve been working on a number of initiatives designed to bridge the gap between academic and industry research, de-risking and prioritising targets to reinvigorate the drug discovery pipeline in dementia.

One such initiative is the Dementia Consortium: a collaboration between Alzheimer’s Research UK, the charity LifeArc and five pharmaceutical companies, which funds promising target validation projects across the globe in an effort to speed up the drug discovery process. Through this initiative we are not only able to offer financial support and resources, but each partner in the Consortium offers their expertise in dementia and drug discovery to help move projects forward. If a project confirms a target’s potential, the pharmaceutical partners involved have the option to take the project forward for further development.

Meanwhile our £30m Drug Discovery Alliance has seen the establishment of three dedicated Drug Discovery Institutes at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and University College London. Each Institute is led by experts with a strong industrial background in drug discovery, working alongside world-leading academic researchers to capitalise on promising discoveries coming out of academia. Dedicated biology, pharmacology and chemistry teams are testing portfolios of new drug targets and searching for compounds that could hold benefit for people with dementia. There are around 17 projects now under way across the Alliance, with over half of these projects having already partnered with industry.

And we are proud to be part of the Dementia Discovery Fund, a collaboration between charity, industry and the UK government to invest in innovative pre-clinical research taking place across the globe. The Fund has so far invested in 12 drug discovery companies, supporting work from target validation projects through to clinical development, and from microglial biology to synaptic function. This is a unique approach for dementia, and is designed to both stimulate pioneering research across the world and expand the range of treatment targets being pursued. The more diverse a portfolio we have, the better our chance of creating a life-changing treatment for the people who desperately need it.

Despite historic underinvestment in dementia research, things are beginning to change. UK government funding for research has begun to rise, and thanks to our supporters we have been increasing the amount Alzheimer’s Research UK invests year on year. At the same time, the pace of research is accelerating.

Our drug discovery work is underpinned by crucial investment into fundamental research that is helping to build new understanding about Alzheimer’s and other dementias – both through a range of grant schemes and through the work of the UK Dementia Research Institute, of which Alzheimer’s Research UK is a founding charity partner. This essential work is driving new discoveries that are building an ever more detailed picture of dementia: revealing genetic risk factors, uncovering key cellular process that underpin diseases like Alzheimer’s, and crucially, pointing to potential new treatment targets to be explored.

All this work is made possible because of our supporters – including organisations like the BioIndustry Association – and with their backing, as well as the combined efforts of industry, charities and government, we believe a breakthrough treatment to transform the lives of people with dementia is on the horizon.

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