Few neurological breakthroughs have been found in connection with Alzheimer's in nearly 20 years. Picture: THINKSTOCK
Few neurological breakthroughs have been found in connection with Alzheimer's in nearly 20 years. Picture: THINKSTOCK

Paris —It's a devastating disease driving a dementia epidemic ruining tens of millions of lives, but with no new medical treatment since the turn of the century the fight against Alzheimer's is foundering.

Despite decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars, the precise cause of the neuro-degenerative disease — which leaves victims suffering from memory loss, disorientation and behavioural problems — remains poorly understood.

"It's a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the end result needs to look like," said Pierre Tariot, director of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

This year alone, pharmaceutical giants, including Lundbeck, Takeda, Merck, Janssen Biotech, AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly, have either halted or failed in their search for a new Alzheimer's drug. US drug giant Pfizer said in January that it was abandoning all research into the disease.

The problem, according to Marie Sarazin, director of neurology at the Saint-Anne hospital in Paris, is that scientific research has followed "the same track" for decades. After trials on mice focused on diseased neurons in the brain, appearing to produce a breakthrough in the early 2000s, many corporations "thought they'd hit the jackpot". 

But follow up research has so far failed to produce a new medical treatment for Alzheimer's. Indeed, the long-held hypothesis over what causes the disease in the first place is now being reconsidered.

Astronomical cost

Alzheimer's occurs when neurons in the brain lose their ability to communicate with one another, leading patients to struggle to remember names and places, orientate themselves or interact with loved ones.

Worldwide, about 7% of people older than 65 suffer from the disease or some form of dementia, a figure that rises to 40% above the age of 85. The number afflicted is expected to triple by 2050 to 152-million, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), posing a huge challenge to healthcare systems.

Alzheimer's cost an estimated $818bn in 2015 — equivalent to around 1% of global GDP, and this is predicted to double by 2030.

September 20 is World Alzheimer's Day, an event launched in 2012 to raise global awareness of the disease. It comes this year with a glimmer of promise for a breakthrough: a joint US-Japanese clinical trial of an antibody designed to breakdown proteins thought to hamper neuro-activity significantly helped the brain function of test subjects.

On Wednesday, a team of scientists in the US said they had eliminated dead but toxic cells occurring naturally in the brains of mice designed to mimic Alzheimer's, as well as slowed neuron damage and memory loss associated with the disease. But with developed nations dealing with the health challenges posed by ageing populations, many experts agree that more attention must focus on prevention as well as cure.

Exercise, drinking less alcohol and eating a balanced diet have all been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Danny Bar-Zohar, global head of neuroscience development at Novartis, told AFP: "It seems that, like in any other neuro-degenerative disease, the key will be to go into prevention, as early as possible before signs and symptoms of the pathology occur."


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