WHO calls for coordinated dementia research efforts, looks to drive innovation in the field

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Andrew Brookes
© GettyImages/Andrew Brookes

Related tags: Dementia, Alzheimer's disease

Previously a series of unsuccessful clinical trials for treatments, combined with the high costs of R&D in the area, led to declining interest in dementia research but a new publication from the WHO notes a definite uptick in the funding of such work in more recent times.

That report from the World Health Organization (WHO): Global status report on the public health response to dementia,​ was released last week, and it suggests there has been a growth of investment in research linked to dementia in markets such as Canada, the UK and the US.

Indeed, the US saw an increase in annual investment in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research from US$631m 2015 to an estimated US$2.8bn in 2020.

"To have a better chance of success, dementia research efforts need to have a clear direction and be better coordinated,”​ said Dr Tarun Dua, head of the brain health unit at WHO. “This is why WHO is developing the Dementia Research Blueprint, a global coordination mechanism to provide structure to research efforts and stimulate new initiatives.”

An important focus of future research efforts should be the inclusion of people with dementia and their carers and families, said the global entity.

On a further positive note, the international body reported that countries in all regions have made good progress in implementing public awareness campaigns to improve public understanding of dementia, with strong leadership by civil society.

Call for renewed commitment from governments 

Only a quarter of countries worldwide have a national policy, strategy or plan for supporting people with dementia and their families, however, found the WHO. Half of these countries are in the organization's European region, with the remainder split between the other regions. Yet even in Europe, many plans are expiring or have already expired, indicating a need for renewed commitment from governments, said the WHO.

At the same time, the number of people living with dementia is growing according to the report: WHO estimates that more than 55 million people (8.1 % of women and 5.4% of men over 65 years) are living with dementia. This number is estimated to rise to 78 million by 2030 and to 139 million by 2050.

And the associated costs of the disease are on an upward trajectory. In 2019, the global cost of dementia was estimated to be US$1.3 trillion. The cost is projected to increase to US$1.7 trillion by 2030, or US$2.8 trillion if corrected for increases in care costs, warned the WHO.

US making dementia research a priority

Fighting Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD) is a national priority in the US, found the organization's report. 

Heightened interest in AD/ADRD resulted in passage of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act in 2011 and unprecedented increases in research funding targeting AD/ADRD in recent years, it noted.

“The tremendous public investment in research has enabled enormous advances in our understanding of the complexities of AD/ADRD. The funding has been applied to a broad, multidisciplinary program in which research moves through a pipeline from studies of basic mechanisms to application in clinical trials and studies, as well as research on care and caregiving.”

Recent boosts in US research funding linked to dementia and AD have enabled:

  • Basic studies of the biology of AD/ADRD, including genetics, in order to better understand what causes the pathology and which interventions may protect against it.
  • Translational studies that are yielding an increasing number of new therapeutic targets that address treatment and prevention. For example, investigators with the Accelerated Medicines Partnership have identified over 500 potential new drug targets for AD/ADRD.
  • Discovery and development of biomarkers, such as imaging and blood tests, to track the course of disease and test the effectiveness of new therapies.
  • Support of programs and infrastructure to make data, knowledge and research tools widely available to all researchers to address key challenges in therapy development.
  • Clinical trials to test a range of potential therapies. NIH currently sponsors some 230 active trials of interventions (both pharmacological and non-pharmacological) to enhance cognitive health in older adults and to prevent, treat or manage AD/ADRD.
  • Research to support improved quality of life for people living with dementia and their carers/care partners.

Data the key to unlocking answers for Alzheimer’s Disease

The WHO also namechecked the Alzheimer’s Disease Data Initiative (ADDI) in its report; the ADDI is a new global effort that aims to advance innovation for AD and related dementias.

Led by Bill Gates and a coalition of partners, the initiative connects researchers with the data needed to generate insights and inform the development of improved treatments and diagnostic tools.

In November 2020, Gates announced ADDI on Gates Notes and unveiled its AD Workbench which is a data-sharing and analytics platform that empowers researchers around the world to share data, resources, and tools to achieve the ADDI vision of accelerating research into Alzheimer’s disease.

With AD Workbench, researchers will have the ability to work with multiple interoperable data sets from different sources, allowing them to securely add, access and transfer data from other platforms. This ability to access and share data and collaborate with other scientists and researchers will increase the speed of discoveries and innovations for Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias, commented the WHO.

Additionally, the AD Workbench provides a space for open access models, applications, and algorithms that will expand the Workbench’s existing analytics for the benefits of advancing dementia research, it said.

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