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Behind the headlines: Pfizer scales back investment but hope remains for a dementia treatment

Dr Matthew Norton

Recent news from the pharmaceutical industry that Pfizer is reducing its investment in dementia research has highlighted some of the barriers to research, and the increased need for shared responsibility in bringing treatments to people in need.

It’s easy to get bogged down by headlines that use words like “abandon” to describe what’s happening to dementia research. However, this is far from true.

Research is happening right now to bring an end to the fear, harm and heartbreak of dementia.

Behind Pfizer’s shifting priorities

On Saturday 6 January, Pfizer announced it would be halting its internal dementia research efforts, closing two of their centres that focus on finding a treatment for the condition. In exchange, the US pharmaceutical company said it would redirect funding to external venture investments in neuroscience, including continued investment in the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF).

While this move is certainly disappointing, it is not uncommon for pharmaceutical companies to engage in collaborations with other organisations for neuroscience research rather than conducting it internally. This is in part because of the high financial risk associated with the high failure rate for early stage drug development.

That’s why now more than ever, research charities like Alzheimer’s Research UK, and collaborative efforts like the DDF, are vital to bringing about the first life-changing treatment for dementia.

Our unique role in drug discovery

The reality of contemporary research and development is that it will take all parties: pharmaceutical companies, government and charities, working together and sharing responsibility to bring life-changing treatments to people with dementia.

At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we work to bridge the gap between government, academia and pharmaceutical companies in the drug discovery process, which can be thought of as a long and expensive pipeline network. By funding research in the earliest stages of discovery, we can support efforts that may be overlooked by pharmaceutical companies and reignite industry investment as that research progresses into the later stages of drug discovery and clinical trials.

These collaborative efforts provide another avenue to drive research development. Working with universities, government, academic institutes, and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Alzheimer’s Research UK is leading the way in collaboration through strategic partnerships, including:

  • Dementia Discovery Fund: an international effort to identify new dementia research projects and provide support through the early stages of testing that Alzheimer’s Research UK helped to initiate.
  • Dementia Consortium: a partnership between Alzheimer’s Research UK, technology transfer and drug discovery experts LifeArc and the pharmaceutical companies, Abbvie, Astex, Eisai, Lilly and MSD that provides funding and support to academics with promising targets for new treatments.
  • Drug Discovery Alliance: brings together our cutting-edge Drug Discovery Institutes at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and University College London. Expert teams within each Institute are working on early-stage drug discovery projects and forging partnerships with industry to accelerate their development towards new dementia drugs.

If work from these initiatives is successful, it is pushed further along the pipeline towards clinical trials in people. With each project that hits a successful milestone, the target becomes more appealing to pharmaceutical companies, who we will work with to attract investment for their continued development.

Currently, thanks to our amazing supporters, we are funding we are funding £37.1m of research including pioneering efforts to develop new treatments, totaling 135 studies across three continents.

 The progress we’re making today

Thanks to research you’ve helped us fund, recent years have seen new genetic discoveries and advances in our understanding of the role of processes like brain inflammation and metabolism in the onset and progression of diseases like Alzheimer’s. These fundamental research findings act as a strong foundation to shape the search for future treatments.

Progress is also being made in research looking at treatments to manage symptoms for people living with dementia. Our Global Clinical Trials Fund is designed to support trials of both drug and non-drug treatment approaches and our first award is helping a University of Oxford team explore whether aspirin and omega-3 fish oils could benefit memory and thinking those at risk of dementia.

Each of these components represents a vital step towards greater understanding of the disease processes that cause dementia and in overcoming the potential barriers that could otherwise stand in the way of future treatments.

There’s reason to hope

The good news is that overall, investment in research has increased in recent years. Pharmaceutical companies are backing the search for new treatments, and your support is helping us establish and run key initiatives that are keeping them interested. Large investment into dementia research from philanthropists, like Bill Gates’ pledge to fund dementia research, should inspire confidence too. Of his $100million pledge, $50million is promised to the DDF.

Although there is still much work to do, we should take heart in the progress we’re making.

In an opinion piece out last week, prize-winning Alzheimer’s researcher and Director the UK Dementia Research Institute Prof Bart De Strooper says “Dementia represents too big a problem for [Pfizer] or any of us to walk away from.”

He’s absolutely right.

For many of us at Alzheimer’s Research UK, this fight is personal. We aren’t giving up, and neither should you.

2 Responses to Behind the headlines: Pfizer scales back investment but hope remains for a dementia treatment

  1. Avatar
    Michael 21 January 2018 at 11:30 pm #

    Should we all be getting a baseline CT or MRI scan at 50 or 60?. This would allow for change to be detected in any subsequent scan instead of trying to speculate whether markers were changing or not. To me in the absence of any cure early detection is key for planning strategies and options for for dealing with dementia. Yet detection still seems very much opinion rather than science based.

    • ARUK Blog Editor
      ARUK Blog Editor 22 January 2018 at 11:10 am #

      Hi Michael,

      CT and MRI scans have become increasingly important in tracking shrinkage in areas of the brain affected by dementia, which can be useful for diagnosis and measuring disease progress. Unfortunately it is likely that the cost of screening for dementia using scans on a population level in this way would be too high. Research is ongoing into more cost effective screening methods such as using biomarkers in spinal fluid from a simple blood test, (read more here https://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/uk-researchers-take-new-steps-towards-alzheimers-blood-test/) and into the development of a risk calculator similar to those used in screening programs run by the NHS for cardiovascular disease. New techniques that can identify the onset of Alzheimer’s sooner are vital for people affected to help receive a timely diagnosis and appropriate support. You can read about the charity’s position on screening here https://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/about-us/our-influence/policy-statements/dementia-diagnosis-policy-statement/

      Hope this helps!

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