“If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.”
The truth of this well-worn adage can be debated. But it certainly goes some way to explaining the enormous challenge we’re facing in our search for new medicines to fight dementia.
We are lucky enough to live in an era where scientific knowledge is growing at an unprecedented rate. Significant advances in recent decades have enabled the development of cutting-edge treatments – such as targeted cancer therapies – that are helping millions of people worldwide.
As a physician and a scientist, I’m immensely excited by this. But I’m also restless. Because despite these advances we’re still struggling to develop treatments for some major health challenges – like dementia.
This devastating disease affects at least 40 million people worldwide and as the global population grows and life expectancy extends, this is set to triple by 2050 to 135m.
Yet there are currently no medicines to prevent or cure this illness. I’m proud of the achievements industry has made in developing life-changing medicines for many diseases – for example changing HIV from a death sentence to a well managed disease in a decade. But in dementia – where our progress has been painstakingly slow – I recognise we’re failing to meet the expectations of society.
Why is this? The reason lies in the brain itself. Weighing a mere 1.5kg, the human brain is one of nature’s most complex objects and its biology is still poorly understood. As such, failure rates are higher in this area of drug discovery than in most others: 95 per cent of potential new dementia medicines fail in clinical trials – around double that of some other areas. Discovering and developing any medicine or vaccine is tough, but dementia is a phenomenally difficult area of research.
That’s not to say the pharmaceutical industry has shied away from this field. GSK has a 60-year legacy in neurosciences and today we have a dedicated research facility in Shanghai, as well as teams in the UK and US. But despite our best efforts, we haven’t developed a new dementia medicine that really alters the disease itself.
Reassuringly, there’s a growing recognition within the global health community that none of us is capable of tackling this threat alone. As with other major health challenges, such as antibiotic resistance, to reverse the tide on dementia we must be more open to working together. A war on dementia won’t be won in isolation.
The emerging global response to dementia is well-illustrated by the collaborative research efforts now underway.
Generous public funding has created research partnerships that are enhancing our understanding of the biology of the brain. Improving our knowledge and expertise at this very early stage is absolutely critical.
But beyond this, new mechanisms are needed to help translate early-stage science into the discovery of potential new treatments. The UK Government’s Dementia Discovery Fund (announced yesterday) aims to do precisely this, by stimulating novel research and acting as an important new source of funding.
I believe this has the potential to accelerate the development of urgently needed new treatments. It’s imperative that funding is available to the smaller research groups working in this space, to afford them the opportunity to try new things. This is where great scientific breakthroughs come from.
We know, from great collaborative efforts in other fields, like HIV, that when the best scientific minds join forces, great strides can be taken to improve global health.
We now have an opportunity to apply a similar approach to dementia research. Deciphering the human brain is one of science’s toughest challenges and it’s one we must stand united on.
City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.