(Forbes)“Beating Alzheimer’s is going to be a team sport. We now have our new quarterback.” Referencing billionaire Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ announcement today to join the fight in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, George Vradenburg, chairman, president and founding board member of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s Network – a movement bent on stopping Alzheimer’s disease by 2020 – said Gates’ decision is a “game changer.”
“I think Gates getting into this game and highlighting its importance to the world is going to be a game changer,” Vradenburg said. “I think he will follow with additional investments and lay out a much more consistent strategy. I think this is just the first step.”
Vradenburg isn’t the only one who’s singing Gates’ praises today. Tim Armour, president and CEO of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund said funding has always been the biggest obstacle to eradicating the disease. “We know that Alzheimer’s disease is having a devastating impact not only here in the U.S. but around the world. Funding of research for Alzheimer’s disease lags far behind the other top 10 illnesses. Bill Gates and his contributions to research of Alzheimer’s disease through private venture funding will help to elevate awareness of the disease and will make a true difference,” Armour said. “In statements and interviews, Bill Gates has reinforced the importance of the kind of fundamental research done by Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, which enables the investments he is making to bring promising therapies to market. Dr. Rudy Tanzi, Chair of our Research Consortium, has stated many times that curing Alzheimer’s is not a science issue; it is now a funding issue. We believe this to be the case and welcome Gates’ additional investments to hasten this process.”
Cure Alzheimer’s Fund – a non-profit founded in 2004 to fund the most promising research to prevent, slow or reverse Alzheimer’s disease – has contributed over $55 million to research, and its funded initiatives have been responsible for several key breakthroughs – including the groundbreaking “Alzheimer’s in a Dish” study at Harvard University. In that study, stem cell scientists successfully converted skin cells from patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s into the types of neurons that are affected by the disease, making it possible for the first time to study Alzheimer’s in living human cells. “With 100 percent of funds raised going directly to research, Cure Alzheimer’s Fund has been able to support some of the best scientific minds in the field of Alzheimer’s research,” Armour said.
Now one of the richest men in the world is joining the fight with his personal wallet in tow. By investing $100 Million in Alzheimer’s research, Gates has effectively joined the fight that really began on an international scale with President Ronald Reagan’s death from the disease and has gained steam by researchers and philanthropists all around the globe.
Gates has promised to invest personally—not as a part of the Gates’ philanthropic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—some $50 million in the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that brings together industry and government to seek treatments for the brain-wasting disease, According to Reuters. He says he will follow this with another $50 million in “less mainstream” start-up ventures working in Alzheimer’s research, but hasn’t identified those companies yet.
“With rapidly rising numbers of people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the disease is taking a growing emotional and financial toll as people live longer,” Gates told Reuters in an interview. “It’s a huge problem, a growing problem, and the scale of the tragedy – even for the people who stay alive – is very high,” he said.
Vradenburg was involved three years ago with creating the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF)—which was the brainchild of the World Dementia Council (WDC) appointed by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Launched in 2015, the DDF involves the UK government as well as drugmakers Eli Lilly, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Biogen Idec. The fund has already invested in at least nine start-up companies investigating potential ways to stop or reverse the biological processes that lead to dementia, according to Reuters.
A member of the 24-member WDC, Vradenburg met with Gates in September about the billionaire’s interest in Alzheimer’s. He said Gates’ involvement is transformative in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. “We know that when Gates goes out to solve a problem, he is persistent, he is resourced and he partners with the best of the best,” Vradenburg said. “And he cares about actually measuring progress.”
Vradenburg was named by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to serve on the Advisory Council on Research, Care, and Services established by the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) and has testified before Congress about the global Alzheimer’s pandemic. He has been appointed to the bipartisan Commission on Long-Term Care. And he and USAgainstAlzheimer’s co-convene both the Leaders Engaged on Alzheimer’s Disease (LEAD) Coalition and the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer’s Disease. A lawyer, Vradenburg has served in senior executive and legal positions at CBS, FOX and AOL/Time Warner.
“The battle to find a cure for Alzheimer’s today lacks funding, urgency, collaboration, and entrepreneurial approaches. The announcement that Bill Gates is joining this fight has the potential to significantly change that paradigm. In talking to him, I am pleased he has identified essentially the same challenges and opportunities as we have at UsAgainstAlzheimer’s and has chosen to invest in a disruptive mechanism to change business as usual. A worldwide Alzheimer’s epidemic is looming as both a health and economic crisis and we need every player in the game to avert it. I can think of no one better than Bill Gates.”
President Ronald Reagan declared the first National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in 1983 just 11 years before he would be diagnosed with the disease that eventually claimed his life. “While President Reagan’s experience raised our collective awareness about this cruel disease, Americans today are, sadly, no less vulnerable to its ravages,” President Donald J. Trump said in a statement this month on National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, 2017. This year, Trump added caregivers to the list of those who should be remembered this November. “This month, we also acknowledge the millions of caregivers currently assisting those with a diagnosis of dementia. They know firsthand that the cost of such a diagnosis is measured not just in dollars and cents, but also in the emotional and physical effort required to help loved ones.”
Gates told Reuters he hesitated to guess at when a cure might be found or an effective drug developed, though he hopes there will be major developments over the next decade. ”It’ll take probably 10 years before new theories are tried enough times to give them a high chance of success. So it’s very hard to hazard a guess…I hope that in the next 10 years that we have some powerful drugs, but it’s possible that won’t be achieved.”
According to Reuters, “alongside the $50 million investment in DDF and the additional $50 million planned for start-ups, Gates said he would like to award a grant to build a global dementia data platform. This would make it easier for researchers to look for patterns and identify new pathways for treatment.”
Via his personal blog, where he says he shares “about the people I meet, the books I’m reading, and what I’m learning,” Gates today wrote about why he is “digging deep into Alzheimer’s.”
“In every part of the world, people are living longer than they used to. Thanks to scientific advancements, fewer people die young from heart disease, cancer, and infectious diseases. It’s no longer unusual for a person to live well into their 80s and beyond. My dad will celebrate his 92nd birthday in a couple weeks, a milestone that was practically unimaginable when he was born,” Gates wrote. “This fact—that people are living longer than ever before—should always be a wonderful thing. But what happens when it’s not? The longer you live, the more likely you are to develop a chronic condition. Your risk of getting arthritis, Parkinson’s, or another non-infectious disease that diminishes your quality of life increases with each year. But of all the disorders that plague us late in life, one stands out as a particularly big threat to society: Alzheimer’s disease.”
Gates goes on to quote the dismal statistics of the disease, including that individuals who live into their mid-80s have a 50% chance of developing Alzheimer’s.
He said he took an interest in Alzheimer’s “because of its costs—both emotional and economic—to families and healthcare systems,” including the fact that a person with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia spends five times more each year out-of-pocket on healthcare than a senior without a neurodegenerative condition and unlike those with many chronic diseases, depending on when they develop Alzheimer’s, could require expensive care for decades.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Americans will spend $259 billion caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias in 2017, Gates wrote. “Absent a major breakthrough, expenditures will continue to squeeze healthcare budgets in the years and decades to come. This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about…”
Gates also wrote about the human cost of the disease, including that he too has personal reasons for finding a cure. “It’s a terrible disease that devastates both those who have it and their loved ones,” he wrote. “This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s. I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you’re experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew. My family history isn’t the sole reason behind my interest in Alzheimer’s. But my personal experience has exposed me to how hopeless it feels when you or a loved one gets the disease. 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.”
And in the end, that’s what Alzheimer’s patients, their families and friends see. They don’t see checks or financial statements. They see the suffering. Penny Bonner, 52 of Houston, Missouri, watched her dad succumb to Alzheimer’s. She said the hardest part was losing him before he actually died. “I lost daddy physically two years ago Halloween. I lost the person I knew growing up long before then. I wouldn’t wish going through this wretched disease on my worst enemy. I think one of the cruelest things I witnessed was that he knew his memory was failing him. He’d say things like, ‘I know I’m going to forget who you are. Please remind me. It might help me remember my daughters a bit longer.”
“What we all need is a better understanding of how the disease begins. We all know the outcome of it,” said Michael Stephens, 57, of Epsom, North Carolina, whose father died October 23 at 86 years old from the complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
His dad, Michael Joseph Stephens, Sr., was a decorated war veteran, with a lifetime of memories taken by Alzheimer’s disease. Born April 25, 1931 in Chicago, IL, the son of Frances and Marie (Horvath) Stephens of St. Louis, MO, he was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He retired from the U.S. Army after serving 23 years, two tours in Korea, one in Vietnam, three years in Germany and four years in Japan. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit (LOM), Korean War Service Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge, and the Army Commendation Medal. He served the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church as a eucharistic minister and was a lifetime member of the VFW, a Third Degree Knight of Columbus and an active member of the Elks Lodge.
“Alzheimer’s took my grandfather back in the 90’s, then my dad just last month. And my mother was diagnosed with it three years ago. I don’t worry about myself going through it. It’s what my family will have to deal with if the Good Lord sees fit that I do. To watch a loved one deteriorate every day before your very eyes to me is a hardship beyond any reason. I think finding out what and where are the beginnings of this disease would be the best place to spend a good part of whatever monies is given.”
Sarah Moeller, 37, of Troy, Missouri is hopeful of the president’s addition of caregivers to the list of critical issues surrounding Alzheimer’s disease. “Loving someone with Alzheimer’s means losing them twice. First, when they lose their mental faculties, and then when they physically die. It is insidious, especially to those around them,” she said. “I helped take care of my grandma for a few years at the end of her life. She lived in our home, and my mom was her primary caregiver. Although many people have complications secondary to Alzheimer’s, my grandma actually died from Alzheimer’s. I was proud of my mom for keeping her so healthy that she didn’t die from something else. It changed our whole life around to have Grandma come live with us, but I’m so glad that we are able to do that for her. Caregiver support is crucial. It’s a key part of Alzheimer’s life.”
Gates said he has spent the last year studying about Alzheimer’s and has put forth a tentative strategy for fighting the disease:
- We need to better understand how Alzheimer’s unfolds. He said that if we’re going to make progress, we need a better grasp on its underlying causes and biology, including why African Americans and Latinos are more likely to get the disease.
- We need to detect and diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier. More reliable, affordable, and accessible diagnostic tests are needed to make it easier to see how Alzheimer’s progresses and track how effective new drugs are.
- We need more approaches to stopping the disease. He said backing is needed for scientists with different, less mainstream ideas. “A more diverse drug pipeline increases our odds of discovering a breakthrough,” he said.
- We need to make it easier to get people enrolled in clinical trials. “The pace of innovation is partly determined by how quickly we can do clinical trials. Since we don’t yet have a good understanding of the disease or a reliable diagnostic, it’s difficult to find qualified people early enough in the disease’s progression willing to participate. It can sometimes take years to enroll enough patients. If we could develop a process to pre-qualify participants and create efficient registries, we could start new trials more quickly.”
- We need to use data better. Data produced by pharmaceutical companies and research labs should be compiled in a common form, Gates wrote, “so that we get a better sense of how the disease progresses, how that progression is determined by gender and age, and how genetics determines your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. This would make it easier for researchers to look for patterns and identify new pathways for treatment.”
As the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease is ravaging the brains of an estimated 5.3 million Americans age 65 and older as you read this article. But Trump said there is “light on the horizon,” however, as America’s scientific, medical, and caregiving communities break new ground in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. “Advancements in computing, genetics, and imaging technologies are facilitating greater collaboration among researchers around the world.”
Trump went on to say “The United States Government is committed to supporting cutting-edge research that will help people with Alzheimer’s through activities such as the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research, through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, and the Exceptional Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA) prize competitions. Congress endorsed both of these efforts last year in the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act. In addition, this past month, the Department of Health and Human Servicesconvened a national research summit focused on improving quality of care, services, support systems, and outcomes for people suffering from dementia and their caregivers.”
“This is a frontier where we can dramatically improve human life,” Gates said. “It’s a miracle that people are living so much longer, but longer life expectancies alone are not enough. People should be able to enjoy their later years—and we need a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s to fulfill that. I’m excited to join the fight and can’t wait to see what happens next.”
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Robin Seaton Jefferson lives just outside of St. Louis with her husband of 24 years and two daughters. Find her on Twitter and Facebook @SeatonJefferson or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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