The U.S. government renewed its commitment to preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease, and its focus on drugs that target the amyloid that builds up in patients’ brains, with a new $45 million in research funding.
The bulk of the money, or $33.2 million, will help fund a prevention trial of an experimental, as-yet unnamed anti-amyloid medicine for healthy older adults with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s. Another $1.5 million will go to an existing study of drugs from Roche Holding AG, MorphoSys AG and Eli Lilly & Co. to see whether they can ward off the disease in people who inherited genes that predestine them to get an early-onset form.
The pharmaceutical industry’s track record with drugs designed to remove the amyloid that accumulates between the brain’s nerve cells in people with Alzheimer’s has been poor. The latest efforts funded by the National Institutes of Health are designed to move in on the disease earlier, focusing on high-risk people who haven’t yet developed signs of Alzheimer’s.
“We know that Alzheimer’s-related brain changes take place years, even decades, before symptoms appear,” said Richard Hodes, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, in a statement. “That really may be the optimal window for drugs that delay progression or prevent the disease altogether.”
The U.S. government’s research funding has been hit by federal spending cuts brought on by sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board reductions triggered in March when lawmakers failed to agree on the nation’s budget. NIH Director Francis Collins provided $40 million of the $45 million from his own office, with the remainder coming from the NIA.
“We are determined, even in a time of constrained fiscal resources, to capitalize on exciting scientific opportunities to advance understanding of Alzheimer’s biology and find effective therapies as quickly as possible,” Collins said in a statement.
The need is urgent. More than 5 million Americans are suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is expected to triple by 2050. There are no effective remedies to slow or treat the disease itself, while existing drugs ease symptoms for several months. The cost of caring for those patients tops $109 billion annually, more than both heart disease and cancer.
The NIH didn’t restrict its funding only to anti-amyloid drugs or patients who don’t yet have symptoms. The agency allocated $2.4 million for an early trial of allopregnanolone, a natural brain steroid that promotes the development of new brain cells and improves cognitive function in animal tests. The 12-week study will look at increasing doses of the treatment for patients with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
The remainder of the money will go to researchers working to better understand the complex networks that go awry in Alzheimer’s disease, potential targets for treatment and other genetic mutations that may make people more susceptible to it.
The drugs being evaluated in people that are genetically-predisposed to early-onset Alzheimer’s include gantenerumab from Roche, based in Basel, Switzerland and MorphoSys, of Martinsried, Germany, and solanezumab from Lilly, based in Indianapolis.