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In the News

Government and business in partnership to beat Alzheimer's

Penny Brooks

20th June 2017

One of the biggest medical threats to face us is Alzheimer's disease. The annual death rate from it is expected to quadruple by 2040, and so far, in spite of billions of dollars-worth of investment in research, the pharmaceutical industry has only managed to find drugs that can provide some short-term relief from it, but not anything that could deal with the underlying causes or prevent its development. In May, the World Health Organisation called for a big increase in investment.

So it is interesting to read of the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), a partnership between the UK government and seven international pharma companies which was set up in October 2015 in order to raise funds and undertake collaborative research to seek some improvements. This is a great example of collaboration between rivals in order to form strategic alliances. It is a different form of non-profit business: the DDF brings together the UK Department of Health with GSK, the UK charity Alzheimer's Research UK, and six other international drug companies from the US and Japan. At the launch of the fund the FT reported that a quarter of UK hospital beds are already occupied by patients suffering from some form of dementia and the cost of these conditions is forecast to soar from £23.6bn last year to £59.4bn by 2050, according to the Office of Health Economics, a British research group. 

The aim of the DDF is to raise money that can be used to work with universities, charities and companies to identify promising early-stage research projects with the aim of helping advance them towards clinical trials. So far, they have raised £100mn for that purpose, mostly from private investors, and hope to increase this to £230mn over the initial five-year funding process. 

As a strategy, the fund is hoping to mimic the approach taken in developing more successful treatments for cancer by investigating the role of the immune system, which is transforming cancer research through immuno-oncology, in the development of Alzheimer’s. 

What is the motivation of those involved? The potential benefits for the government must be obvious, in order to try to cut the massive proportion of the NHS budget that will be devoted to treating patients with the disease in the future. For the private pharmaceutical companies involved as partners in the DDF, none of them will gain any specific patents on any treatments that might be developed, but they will share in any returns on the investments and, they hope, gain early insights into promising science, which might have other applications. For investors putting up the money, if just one successful treatment is found, the returns could be massive - the manager of the DDF, Kate Bingham, says: “This is intended both to be philanthropic and to make money for investors.”

Penny Brooks

Formerly Head of Business and Economics and now Economics teacher, Business and Economics blogger and presenter for Tutor2u, and private tutor

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