PHOENIX – Federal research funds that could prevent or lead to the cure for Alzheimer’s disease have reached $1.9 billion annually but still lag far behind research money for cancer and HIV/AIDS, experts said.
Funds from the National Institutes of Health, the federal research agency that funds grant proposals, tripled from 2015 to 2018. By comparison, cancer research funding reached $6.6 billion.
Alzheimer’s disease is the least funded chronic disease in the U.S., according to James Fitzpatrick, director of programs and advocacy at Desert Southwest Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Cancers and HIV and other diseases that are in the top 5 in our country are still receiving way more than what we are, and it’s not enough,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said that until the first baby boomer turned 65 in 2011, Alzheimer’s disease hadn’t reached the diagnosis levels now reaching that generation. Awareness started to ratchet up after former President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994.
“It didn’t really hit home to society until Reagan came out with the disease, and since then there has been an incline for research funding, but not as huge an incline as it has been the last four years,” he said.
For Alzheimer’s to receive more federal funding, Fitzpatrick said, it has to come out of the research budget for other diseases, which presents a dilemma.
Researching the path toward a cure
Edward Ofori, an Arizona State University professor, said more funds would increase the chances of finding a cure for a disease that as yet has no survivors.
“Incidents or the rates of a lot of these other diseases are declining – whether it’s heart disease, there’s other diseases that are decreasing. However, neurodegenerative diseases are increasing,” said Ofori, of ASU’s College of Health Solutions.
As boomers continue to age, the societal and financial impact of Alzheimer’s on multiple generations will increase. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65.
Paul Coleman, a research professor at the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center, said the battle for grants is highly competitive.
NIH funds only a fraction – 5 to 7 percent – of grant proposals, he said, calling that an “impediment to progress.”
Expanding research approaches
Coleman says Alzheimer’s research in recent years has focused on plaques and tangles, which are proteins that build inside and in between neurons in the brain in areas that affect memory.
But that research does not reveal enough information about what causes Alzheimer’s, which develops years before people begin to show such symptoms as memory loss and the inability to form new memories.
“It’s my opinion that the devotion of a number of people looking at plaques and tangles has interfered with real progress in understanding what’s going on with Alzheimer’s disease,” Coleman said. “Now NIH and other branding agencies have reached a point where they’re saying either they don’t want to fund research on plaques and tangles at all.”
He hopes the next frontier of research will look at epigenetics. Coleman says multiple studies show that in an Alzheimer’s patient’s brain, the expression of at least 1,000 genes are changed.
“It’s epigenetics that plays a major role in determining which genes are turned on and which genes are turned off, and the epigenome can control the expression of large numbers of genes, which is what we see happening with Alzheimer’s disease,” Coleman said.
Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, said he would like to see funding reach $3 billion annually. That research should follow parallel tracks of traditional research and unexplored areas.
“We have the opportunity to take the more traditional findings, put them to the test in more powerful ways and find out one way or the other are they on the right track, or should we pursue other mechanisms,” he said. “At the very same time, we need to be thinking about novel mechanisms and risk factors, new targets at which to aim treatments.”
Reiman says that Arizona has an advantage because it is a major research hub for Alzheimer’s, including the ASU center, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, the University of Arizona and Translational Genomics Institute, known as TGen. A TGen researcher is conducting MindCrowd, an online research project to identify patterns in healthy aging – and eventually prevent dementia.
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