We are living in a new era of medicine, where treatments once believed to be impossible are now a reality. But this immense progress does not apply universally, particularly in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. Between 1998 and 2017, there were 146 attempts to bring new Alzheimer’s treatments to market, but just four successful approvals. Of the top 10 causes of death, Alzheimer's is the only one that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed, as current medicines merely treat symptoms and not the underlying cause.
On September 12, researchers, patient advocates and policymakers gathered in Chicago to discuss the unique challenges that make up Alzheimer's research and what the future holds for the 5.7 million Americans living with the disease. Panelists at the event, produced in partnership with The Atlantic, included Peter Anastasiou, executive vice president and head of Lundbeck North America; Samantha Budd Haeberlein, vice president of Alzheimer’s late-stage clinical development at Biogen; and Dr. Johan Luthman, vice president and head of clinical development at Eisai’s global neurology business group.
“It is extremely challenging to develop new treatments,” said Anastasiou. “We have to continue to have tenacity and continue to have resilience. And we have to continue to have an environment that rewards those risks and the innovation that we ultimately bring.”
Despite setbacks that pose challenges to more effective treatments, researchers are adamant that each failed experiment is not a “failure,” but an opportunity to learn. They all agree setbacks collectively advance our understanding of the disease.
“I think the most important thing is that we have very encouraging clinical trial data now,” said Dr. Luthman. “We actually see effects of medicines that we haven’t seen before. And now we are at the time when we can really start to try to deliver.”
When discovering these new treatments, panelists agreed that partnerships will remain a crucial element of forward progress.
“How we go about our clinical trials and how we learn from the science is a massive collaborative effort,” said Dr. Budd Haeberlein. “Understanding of disease does not occur inside the walls of any one institute.”
A week after the event in Chicago, a similar group of experts gathered in Washington, D.C. to view acclaimed filmmaker and director James Keach’s The Turning Point, which follows a team of dedicated biopharmaceutical scientists on the front lines of Alzheimer’s research and captures the raw disappointment and renewed hope of those working to find a cure. A panel followed the screening - featuring Mr. Keach, Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, and Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operation at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“When you meet scientists, researchers and clinicians in Alzheimer’s research from all around the world, you learn that many have been personally affected by this disease,” said Snyder. “That’s driving their passion and driving them forward.”
Currently, there are 92 medicines in development for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. This year, the health care community learned about the results of an early trial for an experimental medicine that produced a statistically significant reduction in brain amyloid in participants. While these results far from indicate a successful treatment, they do reflect progress. These stepping stones in research will ultimately escalate into a giant leap forward, providing hope to the millions of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers and loved ones.
“I’m an optimist. The researchers and scientists that I interviewed for this film all go to work with the same attitude,” said Keach. “They say ‘We are not going to give up until we get to a solution.’”
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