The purpose of the fund is to promote investment in dementia research by financing early-stage drug development projects. And other pharmaceutical companies, such as Eli Lilly, Biogen and Novartis have continued to seek development of drugs against dementia with modest but promising success to date.
Why is dementia so difficult to treat?
Part of the difficulty in finding treatments for dementia lies in the fact that it is not a single disease, but a complex health problem with more than 50 underlying causes. Dementia can best be considered a generic term that describes a variety of conditions that cause certain parts of the brain to progressively deteriorate.
It does not help that the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease Alzheimer's develop gradually and slowly, and the diagnosis can only be made years after the brain has begun to undergo neurodegenerative changes. For starters, it is not uncommon for Alzheimer's to be present, as well as other forms of dementia.
Promising steps in the right direction
Currently available drugs, such as those that block the actions of an enzyme that destroys an important chemical messenger in the brain for memory (acetylcholinesterase inhibitors) or blocks the effects toxic from another messenger, glutamate (memantine) temporarily manages the symptoms. But new treatments focus on slowing or reversing the disease process, addressing the underlying biology.
One approach, called immunotherapy, involves the creation of antibodies that bind to abnormal developments in the brain (such as amyloid-β or tau), and mark them for destruction through a range of mechanisms. Immunotherapy is experiencing great interest and several clinical trials are currently underway, targeting both amyloid-β and tau.
It is estimated that only 0.1% of the antibodies circulating in the bloodstream enter the brain, this also includes the therapeutic antibodies currently used in clinical trials. One approach my team takes is to use ultrasound to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier, which increases the absorption of drugs or fragments of Alzheimer's antibodies.
The task of developing drugs against dementia is not an easy task, and requires collaboration between government, industry and academia. In Australia, the National Dementia Network serves well for this purpose. Only through perseverance and continuous investment in research, one day we will receive a treatment for dementia.
Jürgen Götz is director of the Clem Jones Center for the Investigation of Dementia in Aging of the University of Queensland.