National Alzheimer’s Plan Launched

President Barack Obama has thrown down the gauntlet in announcing the first National Alzheimer’s Plan, which sets a deadline of 2025 to find ways to effectively treat — or at least delay — the mind-destroying disease.  The Obama administration is laying out numerous steps the government and private partners can take over the coming years to fight what is poised to become a defining disease of the rapidly aging population.  Families and caregivers with a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s can visit a new website for information about dementia and where to get help in their own communities.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding new studies of possible therapies, including a form of insulin that is shot into the nose.  “These actions are the cornerstones of an historic effort to fight Alzheimer’s disease,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.

The National Alzheimer’s Plan comes as leading scientists and researchers are meeting at the NIH to debate what research needs to be prioritize to meet that 2025 deadline.  According to the researchers, the time is right to begin testing potential therapies before people have full-blown Alzheimer’s symptoms, when it may be too late to help.  “There’s a sense of optimism” as a result of some new discoveries, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said.  But, “we need to figure out exactly where is the best window of opportunity” to battle Alzheimer’s.  Collins noted that cardiologists don’t test cholesterol-reducing drugs on people who have advanced heart failure.

The research is being funded by grants of $16 million and $7.9 million respectively. Experts predict that unless more effective drugs are developed, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s will double by 2050 and related healthcare costs could soar to more than $1 trillion.  Alzheimer’s affects approximately 5.1 million Americans today; current treatments address symptoms, but do not prevent the disease or halt its progression.

The 2025 goal was the subject of a long debate in the advisory council tasked with helping to write the national plan.  “We had people saying it was overly ambitious and we had people who said it wasn’t ambitious enough,” said Don Moulds, principal deputy assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at HHS.  According to Moulds, some were concerned that an earlier goal might skew research funding into treatments that might be easy hits, but not game-changing treatments.  The 2025 target was deemed to be the earliest date when an effective treatment could be found.  “It’s a huge initiative and a very ambitious step in the right direction,” Moulds said.

Researchers leading the largest clinical study ever done on Alzheimer’s disease have run into an unexpected hurdle.  With nearly 500 patients undergoing MRI scans, PET scans and even spinal taps, researchers hope to invent the first ever test to find Alzheimer’s before a patient loses any memory — or even knows there’s a problem.  “We may be able to screen and begin treatment even before any symptoms begin,” said Dr. Raymond Turner of Georgetown University Hospital, which is one of 57 centers participating in the study.

“The problem is finding volunteers to join the studies,” Turner said.  “Patients.”  The study of 750 patients is 250 patients short.  Nationally, the deficit is in the thousands, with virtually every clinical trial related to Alzheimer’s short of volunteers.  Alzheimer’s itself is part of the problem.  Patients who don’t know that they have the disease don’t know to volunteer, and patients with mild memory loss are often reluctant to participate.  The lead researcher of the imaging trial, Dr. Michael Weiner, says one answer is to recruit physicians who treat Alzheimer’s patients.  “We definitely could do a better job trying to get physicians to refer patients to our project,” Weiner said.  “The slower our trial goes, the slower the rate of progress.”

Eric J. Hall, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), “This day has been a long time coming. The release of the ‘National Plan To Address Alzheimer’s Disease’ reflects the growing impetus among the public and policymakers to act on a disease that has been in the shadows for far too long.  We commend President Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Congress for uniquely recognizing and responding to the implications of the Alzheimer’s Disease epidemic.  Recognition is essential for action, and their courage has forged enormous opportunity.

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