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Navigating the Industrial Strategy: How government can make dementia a priority

Kirsty MaraisClare van LyndenSusan MitchellEmily CookEmma HardwickHelen DaviesMelody Paton Borchardt

This post is part of a series on the Industrial Strategy.

In a push forward for the government’s Industrial Strategy, a new white paper released last week (27 November) may hold some keys to unlock future dementia treatments. In “Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future“, the Government gives emphasis to meeting the needs of an ageing society by naming this effort as one of four grand challenges. Among the reasons given for this, the white paper notes that “one in three children born in the UK today can expect to live to 100”.

Unfortunately, we know that a third of those children will also develop dementia later in their life. That’s part of a trend we’re seeing now: people are living longer, but for many those extra years are spent in poorer health.

We know defeating dementia will require a huge effort, but through research we will develop ways to treat and ultimately prevent the condition; that’s why we’re encouraged by the progress the Industrial Strategy’s plans represent. However, we need to ensure that dementia research is given clear support in the proposed initiatives.

We’re asking the government to use the additional £7bn in research and development funding to increase the annual investment in dementia research to a minimum of £132m by 2022. This represents a doubling from the current annual investment of £66m.

Although the white paper, in its current state, makes no mention of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, we’re still encouraged by what we see.

Here are the areas we’re most excited about, and what we think success could look like:

Developing diagnostics for early diagnosis

What it is

The white paper mentions that there will be an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund focused on early diagnosis, with the aim to create a diagnostics platform that uses technology to shift diagnosis of diseases much earlier. This is part of the new Health Advanced Research Programme (HARP), which is focused on developing solutions to healthcare challenges.

While the white paper doesn’t give many specifics on this topic, we expect the challenge to support research that would work to help diagnose diseases like Alzheimer’s before symptoms appear.

Why it matters

Currently, people with dementia aren’t diagnosed until symptoms begin to appear, which can be much as 20 years after the disease processes begin. But many scientists believe future dementia treatments would be most effective if given early, which means there’s a real need to be able to detect diseases like Alzheimer’s much earlier.

What success might look like

People with dementia would receive a diagnosis 15 – 20 years earlier than what is possible today – enabling them to take advantage of future treatments as they come online.

Increased tax credits offered for research & development

What it is

A proposed increase to 12 percent in tax credit that helps encourage pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies to take on costly research into new treatments.

Why it matters

Drug companies may be hesitant to finance research into new treatments that might be considered risky investments. This research can bring significant rewards, but can also be costly if not successful.

What success might look like

A significant increase in investment in dementia research from private companies as a result of the tax incentive.

Patient data hubs

What it is

Systems that coordinate anonymised patient information to provide researchers with large-scale population data, like the proposed Digital Innovation Hubs, that will work to safely and ethically harness patient data, and the proposed “Data to early diagnostics and precision medicine programme”.

Why it matters

The NHS is uniquely positioned to capture data on people’s health “from cradle to grave”. This scope of data could help researchers understand when disease processes begin and how they take place throughout a lifetime.

What success might look like

A clear and ethical process for using anonymous patient data that both protects that data and aids research, and helps establish the UK as a world-leading place to conduct research.

Strengthening UK research

What it is

Doing more to ensure that research discoveries are translated into treatments and services for patients.

 Why it matters

While the initiative covers UK research in general, it could offer a significant boost to clinical sciences, health and medical sciences, and biological sciences, which fall behind other UK research fields like business, social sciences and engineering according to the white paper.

What success might look like

Additional support for dementia research because of increased financial investment in clinical sciences, health and medical sciences, and biological sciences in general.

Increased support for Quality-Related research through Research England

What it is

Programmes that help fill in the gaps in research funding, such as the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF), which covers the cost of things like IT support and facilities that aren’t typically covered by donations and grants from charities like Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Why it matters

Financial support for the CRSF has remained static since 2010 decreasing the overall finances available. Universities that are not able to fully fund their research through the CRSF often don’t apply for charity research money, meaning many potentially groundbreaking projects could be lost.

What success might look like

An increase in the Charity Research Support Fund from £198m to £264m per year to close the gap that has grown since 2010.

Continued international collaboration

What it is

Ensuring the UK maintains connections and access to international funding streams, as well as existing partnerships that help produce research findings.

Why it matters

According to the white paper, international sources helped to fund 17 percent of UK research in 2014. In addition, half of the research publications released in 2014 were co-authored with researchers outside the UK. The loss of funding or collaboration opportunities would be detrimental to the research being produced now and could slow the effort to bring about the first life-changing treatment for dementia.

What success might look like

Clearing the way post-Brexit for continued access to EU funding sources to support projects such as iASiS, a project we’re involved in that is co-funded by the EU and allows researchers to access data from countries across the continent. Success would also enable UK researchers who are early in their careers to gain experience in international labs before bringing their expertise back to the UK.

An emphasis on recruiting global skills and talent

What it is

A focus on the migration system to ensure the world’s top experts and scientists can be recruited to the UK, including relaxing the labour market test to make it easier for organisations to hire international talent and an additional investment in the Rutherford Fund, which funds fellowships in science and innovation.

Why it matters

In order to produce the kind of groundbreaking research we need to bring about a life-changing treatment for dementia, we need to be able to work with the top experts in the field, wherever they are based. This will be particularly important as the UK redefines borders and relationships with other countries in the next two years.

What success might look like

An immigration system that allows flexible and non-bureaucratic recruitment of the best scientific talent from around the world to come live and work in the UK.

With increased support and funding for dementia research in recent years, the UK has seen a doubling in the number of researchers and findings published in scientific journals, the highest percentage increase in the world. Imagine how much more progress could be made with the additional support outlined in the Industrial Strategy.

If you’re interested in our policy work and want to learn more, why not join our team of Campaigners.

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