Dementia Challenge – what it means for research

Posted on May 31, 2013 by

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In March 2012, the Prime Minister announced ‘Dementia Challenge’ with a pledge to increase research funding. A year on, Rebecca Wood, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, takes a look at progress and what comes next.

We know that no other condition strikes such fear and poses such a great threat to national health as dementia. Alzheimer’s and other diseases that cause dementia present an enormous personal, social and economic challenge – over 820,000 people costing the UK economy £23bn a year. It is staggering to think then that there are no drugs available to halt or prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. In the past decade, we have seen research deliver treatments that can combat major diseases like cancer, yet dementia still presents a slow devastating decline.

As the leading dementia research charity, Alzheimer’s Research UK’s vision is a world free from dementia.  Through research we believe one day there will be treatments which stop dementia in its tracks. But we urgently need an all-out collective fight back.

National priority

We think the government is getting the message. The past year has seen dementia shift from the side-lines to mainstream politics. The Prime Minister launched his Dementia Challenge in March 2012, responding to the huge health crisis dementia poses and making clear that this is a national priority.

‘Dementia Challenge’ represents the most comprehensive and high profile effort yet in tackling dementia. It works across three core strands – improving health and social care, creating dementia friendly communities and better research. The headline for dementia research was government funding would double to £66m a year by 2015. Having campaigned for an increase in funding following the launch of our Dementia 2010 report, this was a policy success but more importantly a major step forward in the fight to defeat dementia.

Alzheimer’s Research UK strongly welcomed this move to prioritise dementia and is supporting delivery of the Challenge through our position on the Research Champion Group, as well as contributing to the delivery of some of the commitments within the Challenge.

However, as we look forward, we cannot afford to take the pressure off government to do more. Research takes time and sustained investment – neither of which fit comfortably into parliamentary terms. With just three years to deliver some bold commitments, we are monitoring progress carefully. What comes next is a major consideration, with 2015 presenting a challenge to ensure we capitalise on momentum and keep dementia firmly in the spotlight.

One year review

A year on, we are feeling positive as we can see some big projects underway. A few highlights from the past year include:

  • £22 million of new funding for 21 clinical and applied health research projects through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)
  • £4.5m invested in new programmes through the Medical Research Council (MRC) to evaluate the use of existing drugs to see whether they will benefit people with dementia
  • Additional support from the MRC pledged for the UK Brain Bank Network, which includes the Brains for Dementia Research project – jointly funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society

These, along with other developments in the Dementia Challenge one year report represent a good start. Funding is on the increase, projects underway and encouragingly, much of this in collaboration with medical research charities. Gratifyingly, government is thinking big on dementia research and looking beyond our shores too, with the G8 in its sights. The Prime Minister recently announced plans to harness the UK’s presidency of the G8 to unite global research efforts on dementia. This recognises the UK’s unique resources and expertise as a world-leading expert on dementia research, something which Alzheimer’s Research UK assembled evidence for in a study of worldwide output last year that formed our Defeating Dementia report. Other countries have introduced action plans, including provision for research, not least the US through the Obama administration’s focus on fighting dementia. The UK will convene a meeting of G8 members in September 2013 to consider opportunities to coordinate individual national efforts into global collaboration.

This is the kind of ambition dementia needs. National leaders are taking the issue seriously and we hope this translates into firm joined up action and increased resource. International collaboration is vital and such high profile action could go a long way to attracting more Scientists into the field. With only one dementia scientist to every six working in cancer, increased capacity is something the dementia field demands.

What’s next?

Public engagement in dementia research is still low, so we support ambitions through the Dementia Challenge to increase participation. We know that people want to take part in research, so there is work to be done helping match people to studies and increase public awareness and confidence in research taking place. We are working with DeNDRoN, the Alzheimer’s Society and others in the development of a consent-for-approach list which will allow people with dementia and their carers to register interest in dementia research. A more general push to embed research throughout the NHS is something we have also strongly supported. The AMRC’s Vision for Research in the NHS will certainly help keep the pressure on as will the new duties introduced for authorities in the Care Bill.

The commitment to increase funding has been positively received, but dementia research funding was at such a low level to begin with, £66m by 2015 is still “a drop in the ocean” compared to other major disease areas – a fact acknowledged by the Health Minister earlier this year. Our vision is to see sustained increases and repeated funding calls over time and well beyond 2015 to bring dementia research in line with areas like oncology. This is a tall order, but we have to aim high if we want to see real advances made.

We are looking to the government to provide a strong backing to drive future progress, but we know that research takes time. That is why we are calling for a long term strategy. Similarly, we do not expect the government to lead the way alone. This requires a collective effort and we are raising our game too.

What we’re doing at Alzheimer’s Research UK

This year, Alzheimer’s Research UK announced its funding of research had reached the new height of £20m, supporting over 140 pioneering research projects. This makes Alzheimer’s Research UK the second largest dementia research charity in the world, and second only to the Government’s Medical Research Council in terms of funding impact in the past year.

We also launched a bold new Research Strategy to drive research towards early detection and treatment. Through this strategy, we will spearhead efforts to identify the earliest signs of disease and support the crucial early development of potential drug treatments. There will also be a new emphasis on joining academic research teams together with the pharmaceutical industry, to improve the transition of early stage results into practical pharmaceutical application.

Having built a reputation on funding the strongest dementia research from discovery science through to clinical studies, the charity is for the first time moving from an entirely reactive funding model, to a more strategic approach. Our main aim is to translate the excellent work happening in laboratories across the country into treatments that can help people live well with dementia today and tomorrow.

We will continue to monitor progress on Dementia Challenge but are looking beyond this to consider what will arrive post-2015. Is dementia now recognised as the critical public health issue to the extent that current national initiatives would survive a change in government? Will future spending priorities continue to recognise the importance of medical research? We don’t yet know the answer, but we’ll concentrate efforts on all parties to seek manifesto commitments to dementia research in the next chapter to preserve momentum.

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