There hasn’t been a new drug approved to treat Alzheimer’s in more than a decade, and Bill Gates is impatient for a cure.
In a blog post published t0day (Nov. 13), Gates announced that he’d be donating $50 million from his personal funds to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture-capital organization that works with both the UK government and drug companies to look for novel approaches to tackle the most common form of dementia. Additionally, he said he will donate another $50 million to smaller startups researching the disease, although he hasn’t named specific companies yet, Reuters reports.
There are 47 million people living with some form of dementia globally; about 60% to 80% of those cases are Alzheimer’s disease. Before 2050, the total number of dementia cases is expected to hit 130 million, about 30 million in countries that aren’t yet wealthy.
Although there are some genetic links to the disease, the primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. There’s about a 50/50 chance that anyone who lives beyond 80 years old will develop the disease, and each of these patients spends 500% more on personal health-care costs than those living without dementia. Globally, this adds up to over a quarter of a trillion dollars every year spent on treating Alzheimer’s. Gates fears that this kind of spending will end up crippling countries that are still growing rapidly.
“Now is the right time to accelerate that progress before the major costs hit countries that can’t afford high- priced therapies and where exposure to the kind of budget implications of an Alzheimer’s epidemic could bankrupt health systems,” he writes.
The state of drug development for Alzheimer’s is bleak, but not for a lack of trying. Between 2002 and 2012, pharmaceutical companies poured likely billions of dollars into research and development for Alzheimer’s drugs—but despite these financial investments, over 99% of clinical trials for these drugs failed. The last drug novel drug to treat Alzheimer’s was Namenda, manufactured by Allergan, which hit the market in 2003 (in 2014, Allergan released a similar drug that combined the active ingredient in Namenda with another drug from 1996).
The drugs approved to treat Alzheimer’s are only capable of improving symptoms once a patient already has dementia. Major pharmaceutical companies like Novartis and Janssen are in the midst of clinical trials for drugs that slow down the disease’s progress. These drugs prevent the buildup of amyloid plaques and tangles of tau proteins before they destroy brain tissue. However, it’s likely that these clinical trials will have at least five more years before they are completed.
Gate wants his funds to go specifically to areas of research that fall outside of the amyloid and tau wheelhouses. A more diverse approach, he believes, will increase the odds of finding one that works. He also hopes that research will soon deliver better diagnostic tools, like a quick blood test, that can detect the disease sooner. The earlier Alzheimer’s disease is detected, the more effective treatments are. And better detection can help match patients with clinical trials and add to researchers’ understanding.
“My personal experience has exposed me to how hopeless it feels when you or a loved one gets the disease,” he writes. “We’ve seen scientific innovation turn once-guaranteed killers like HIV into chronic illnesses that can be held in check with medication. I believe we can do the same (or better) with Alzheimer’s.”