In 1968 a team of researchers from the University of Newcastle showed, for the first time, that Alzheimer’s disease was the major cause of dementia. Before this point Alzheimer’s was considered to be a rare disease that affected people relatively early in life, and dementia was largely seen as a normal consequence of the ageing process. This discovery was a huge leap forward in our understanding of dementia, and it set the modern era of research in motion.

 

Under-funded in comparison to other common diseases

 

But dementia research was a little late out of the gates. By 1968 pacemakers and coronary bypass surgery were already transforming the lives of people affected by heart disease, and combination chemotherapy was being rolled out for the treatment of cancer. While funding for dementia research still lags behind these other disease areas, the last fifty years have seen incredible scientific progress that is paving the way to more effective treatments.

Bringing a new treatment to market is usually the culmination of decades of research. The process begins when scientists make a discovery about the underlying biology of a disease, and it continues through multiple stages of biological testing, chemical development, and clinical trials.

 

Research starting in the 70s led to medications by the 90s

 

In the late 90s, the first medications for Alzheimer’s disease made it into the hands of patients. These treatments have their routes in pioneering research from the 1970’s, which revealed that people with Alzheimer’s have lower levels of a key chemical messenger in the brain. While these drugs don’t work for everyone and may only have a modest effect on symptoms, they have now helped millions of people around the world.

The G8 set a target of finding the first disease modifying treatment for dementia by 2025.

These current treatments can compensate for some of the effects of Alzheimer’s, but they can’t change the underlying disease processes or protect the brain from further damage. In 2013 the G8 group of nations set a target of finding the first disease modifying treatment for dementia by 2025, a date that is now looming large. This is an ambitious goal, but advances in the understanding of how Alzheimer’s develops, have brought it to within our reach and at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we have aligned ourselves with this target with a clear mission to bring about the first life-changing dementia treatment by 2025.

As genetic research matured into the 1990s, researchers were able to piece together the precise molecular steps by which the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid builds up in the brain. Amyloid protein is thought to play a central role in damage to the brain in Alzheimer’s disease, and anti-amyloid drugs are the front runners in the race for the first treatments that could actually slow or stop the disease.

Several of these promising drugs are already in the late stages of clinical trials and while there are significant hurdles still to overcome, we are moving closer to the life-changing treatments we all want.

 

There is more to dementia than just Alzheimer's

 

But Alzheimer’s is just one form of dementia and is in itself a complex disease with multiple facets that will likely need to be tackled in different ways. The first disease-modifying drug will not be a cure-all, and we need to make sure that it will be the first of many.

From a standing start fifty years ago, research progress has been accelerating alongside hard-won increases for funding. While dementia research is still playing catch-up, initiatives like the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Alliance are already exploring a diverse portfolio of drug targets and are positioned to seize upon new findings from academic research and develop these ideas towards new drugs as quickly as possible.

Last year saw the launch of the UK Dementia Research Institute, the country’s largest ever dementia research endeavour. The institute aims to reveal more about the complex causes of dementia and open up entirely new avenues through which we can take on diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Ultimately the progress that matters is more and better ways to help people affected by dementia. While these milestones lie ahead, they are being built on foundations laid out over decades of research innovation and scientific success.