Alzheimer’s research is getting a boost from the American Association of Retired Persons, which recently announced a major financial commitment to help put development of new drugs on a fast track.
“Alzheimer’s is a 100% fatal disease,” said AARP Florida spokesperson Dave Bruns, referencing the fact that there is currently no cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. “So, this is among the grimmest diagnoses that one can receive and it ranks among AARP members as one of their top fears.”
That’s why AARP is contributing $60 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a figure chosen specifically to honor the 60th anniversary of the organization, which was founded in 1958.
With an additional $15 million from partner organizations UnitedHealth Group and Quest Diagnostics, the total investment is $75 million. The contribution has helped DDF, the British-based investment fund, reach its fundraising target of $350 million.
“The purpose of AARP’s investment in this fund was to kick start development of new treatments,” Bruns said. “Currently, several major pharmaceutical manufacturing companies have pulled out of the development of new treatments, and so there’s really a funding gap in funding development of new treatments. AARP is moving to address that gap.”
“This is another way of creating a funding stream to support creative and innovative ideas outside of the more traditional grant funding mechanism,” said Dr. Rodney Guttmann, a biology professor and Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of West Florida.
He says research projects funded by traditional sources, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Alzheimer’s Association, typically result in knowledge that is developed and moved forward slowly and incrementally.
“A concept like this, I think is more of a high impact clinical application; that is they’re trying to focus individuals on finding clinical discoveries and that is more of a quantum leap forward,” Guttmann said. “And, that’s difficult to do in a traditional scientific funding scheme, where you have a narrow focused hypothesis, where you’re trying to build and accumulate that knowledge which has been the typical way and has led to the discoveries we have today. It’s not a means of displacing that, it’s simply a way to add to that.”
The idea is to provide an incentive for researchers to develop new drugs faster.
While pharmaceutical companies have had success in recent years developing pills for a wide range of conditions, there are still only five federally approved drugs for the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s. None of them cures or stops the disease from progressing. According to Dr. Guttmann, one big reason is that the brain is one of the most complicated organs in our body.
“So, there’s still a long way to go in understanding of how the brain normally works much less what’s happening in a disease such as Alzheimer’s disease,” Guttmann said of the slow, progressive neuro-degeneration that affects behavior, personality and cognition and plays out differently within each person.
Clinical trials will continue to play a major role in the development of new drugs, to ensure they are both safe and effective.
Currently, UWF is conducting its own clinical trial focused on agitation in Alzheimer’s and still looking for participants. More information about the study is available by emailing ClinicalTrials@uwf.edu or calling 850-850-474-3181.
Guttmann says these efforts to advance Alzheimer’s research are a big deal for a state like Florida. It has the highest percentage of senior citizens in the nation, and it’s where about 9 percent of the 5.7 million Americans who are living with the disease reside.
“People love to come where the weather is warm and nice and then taxes are low. So, people are migrating here everyday, and Pensacola in particular is one of those locations that’s kind of that sweet spot: you’ve got a nice university here, access to the beaches, you’ve got a low cost of living. And, so, Pensacola and Escambia county in general is experiencing growth, and this is gonna continue to happen.
“For us, this is personal,” said AARP spokesperson Dave Bruns. “There are so many of us that have had experiences, not only with Alzheimer’s, but with other forms of dementia. It is a cruel disease, to watch your loved one turn into a shell of their former self, right in front of your eyes, sometimes over a period of sometimes 10 years.”
To date, Bruns has found it hard to remain optimistic about potential new breakthroughs. But, AARP is an organization for aging Americans, and he believes supporting faster development of new Alzheimer’s treatments is what it should be doing.