Last December I was delighted to chair the Alzheimer’s Research UK summit in Parliament following the G8 Summit where I worked with the Prime Minister to highlight the pioneering research work undertaken by innovative companies in the UK. With our ageing society, Alzheimer’s and dementia is a ticking time bomb at the heart of healthcare. The statistics are startling: 44 million people globally have dementia. By 2050, 135 million will have the disease, while the current global cost is $600bn. Already accounting for £23bn of cost to the UK, the disease has a devastating impact on those affected, and their loved ones and carers. Thankfully, however, the UK is pioneering new treatment and preventative intervention.
Alzheimer’s and dementia is a ticking time bomb at the heart of healthcare.
I saw such work last year when I visited Alzheimer’s Research UK’s cutting edge lab in Cambridge. Dr Livesey and his team are working on a major project using stem cells to study Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, backed by a £350,000 grant from Alzheimer’s Research UK. Using cutting-edge techniques that depend on the Nobel prize-winning research of Prof John Gurdon – the founder of the Institute – the scientists are using stem cells donated by people with a high risk of Alzheimer’s, which can be used to generate networks of functioning nerve cells in the lab. These networks resemble the complex wiring of cells in the human cerebral cortex, which makes up over three quarters of the brain and is damaged in Alzheimer’s disease. Because these stem cell-generated networks suffer similar damage, they provide a valuable tool for studying the disease and testing potential new treatments.
I have also seen the effect of dementia in my own constituency of Norfolk, an area leading the way in the struggle against dementia with Wymondham as the first dementia-friendly town. Recently I attended the Norfolk Care Conference where dementia was central to the discussions as well as seeing the frontline of dementia care at the Wymondham Dementia Support Group (WDSG) Cafe. The café supports 30 people with dementia and their carers. WDSG has been working in partnership with age UK Norfolk, Wymondham town council and the local business community raising awareness of dementia to make Wymondham a dementia-friendly community.
As the G8 Summit set out, tackling this disease is going to require new ways of thinking.
As the G8 Summit set out, tackling this disease is going to require new ways of thinking. Indeed, through my work as Government Life Science Advisor – helping co-ordinate and launch the Life Science Strategy in 2011 – I have been pushing this wider agenda of patient empowerment, the use of data in research and new models of research medicine that are key to combating dementia. To which end, I am currently leading a Patients4Data movement, highlighting how this can transform the landscape for researchers and combat diseases like dementia.
Following on from the success of the G8 Summit there are, of course, still things to do. Cancer research gets eight times as much funding as dementia. I therefore support the call for an increase in Government for dementia research as vital to tackling this devastating disease. But amid the numbers we must never forget that tackling this dreadful disease is fundamentally about liberating older people to live fulfilled and productive lives with dignity, and supporting the incredible work that carers do. We need to get away from thinking that dementia is just something old people get, and instead see it for the corrosive medical condition it is. Above all, we must remember the awful impact it has on so many lives.