Pharmaceutical companies have for the past 20 years barraged the public with commercials about pills that help people lose weight, control cholesterol or soothe irritable bowels.
But there remain only five federally approved drugs for the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and none cure or stop the memory-robbing diseases from progressing.
With the estimated number of people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease growing exponentially and optimism for better treatment plans fading, AARP, UnitedHealth Group and Quest Diagnostics announced this week a $75 million commitment to the “Dementia Discovery Fund,” which is aimed at developing new drugs for treating dementia.
Yarissa Reyes, state director of communications for the Alzheimer’s Association, said the additional funding is good news for Florida, where an estimated 540,000 people with Alzheimer’s disease live.
“It also helps the caregivers as well,’’ said Reyes, who noted more than 1.1 million people in Florida care for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. “This is a win-win.”
The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, and it causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, eventually rendering a person unable to perform simple daily activities.
The number of people in Florida living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to increase by 33 percent in the next seven years, totaling more than 720,000 by 2025.
AARP announced its funding commitment as it released a new survey of U.S. physicians that shows a lack of optimism that the situation will improve soon.
One in three physicians surveyed said current dementia treatment options are poor, and only 10 percent said they are extremely or very optimistic that effective treatment protocols will emerge in the next five years.
AARP Florida spokesman Dave Bruns said the senior-advocacy group won’t measure the success of its investment in traditional ways. “The hope is that this will pay off in terms of more treatments and fewer patients suffering from dementia,” Bruns said.
David Kang, director of basic science research at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, said the additional funding can help bridge what he called the “valley of death” between academic research and clinical trials done by large pharmaceutical companies.
“The funding can be used to support the development of ideas into small companies,” Kang said, adding, “or to support drugs that are almost there.”
While there have been hundreds of clinical trials about Alzheimer’s disease in the past 15 years, drugs being tested have not come to the market. Patients and caregivers have five drugs to choose from: Aricept, Razadyne, Namenda, Exelon and Namzaric.
The available medicines do not cure Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, they temporarily lessen the symptoms of the disease such as declines in memory, language, and problem-solving skills..
The Byrd Alzheimer's Institute treated 3,000 people for Alzheimer’s disease last year, said Amanda Smith, the institute’s director of clinical research. Also, the institute is participating in more than 12 active clinical trials, partnering with the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies. Five of the clinical trials are currently enrolling patients, she said.
Meanwhile, Kang said in the past, clinical trials were designed around people with dementia, in part to help those who needed it. But Kang said researchers didn’t fully understand that “any amount of drug” isn’t going to bring the brain back.
“But we know better now,” he said, explaining that trials now focus on prevention and are designed for patients who have warning signs.