Drugs firms are increasing their dementia spending

By Jill Martin
Business reporter

image copyrightThinkstock

With life expectancy on the rise, the pharmaceutical industry is shifting its research and development funds.

It is spending billions to meet a rising demand for drugs to treat chronic conditions in an increasingly elderly population.

That phenomenon is playing out in the rise of funding for research into dementia treatments.

"We are all living longer," says Dr Doug Brown, the director of research and development for Britain's Alzheimer's Society.

He welcomes recent reports showing that solanezumab, a potential new experimental treatment from Eli Lilly, can cut the rate of the dementia's progression by about a third if it is given to patients early enough.

"This is a big step in a direction where we could potentially have the first treatment for Alzheimer's disease that slows that disease process," he says.

"We have a number of treatments currently available that treat symptoms, which aren't hugely effective.

"But this could be the first one that acts at the crux of what's happening in the brains of people with Alzheimer's to slow that disease process, slow that cognitive decline and really improve the quality of life."

The final results of those clinical trials will not be available for more than a year.

Ageing population

Alzheimer's disease afflicts more than 40 million people around the world, presenting a devastating - and costly - problem.

More than 800,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, two thirds of whom have Alzheimer's, says the Alzheimer's Society.

But the promising developments in the hunt for a cure for the condition come at a cost.

image copyrightScience Photo Library
image captionThe UK is doubling the amount it spends on research into dementia

By 2020, the UK government will have invested more £300m into UK dementia research, according to the department of health.

The UK has doubled research funding since 2009 to more than £66m a year in 2015, and investment in dementia research is set to double over the next ten years, as the population lives longer.

The Office for National Statistics expects the number of people aged 80 and over in the UK to more than double to six million by mid-2037.

This ageing trend is evident across the world, with the number of people over the age of 60 growing faster than any other age group, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

By 2050, it expects the world's population aged 60 years and older to total two billion.

As the number of the over-60s rises, so will demand for drugs to keep them healthy - and medicines for chronic conditions are more lucrative than one-off treatments.

Cautious expectations

The rising stakes in the hunt for an Alzheimer's treatment is emblematic of the shifting tide in research priorities among the world's medical community.

Eli Lilly currently stands at the forefront of research for a treatment for the disease, but its efforts are still experimental.

Solanezumab is raising hopes about an effective treatment, but experts caution against getting too optimistic, too soon.

"We are currently carrying a 30% probability of success," says Jo Walton, pharmaceutical analyst at Credit Suisse, of solanezumab.

Because of the history of failures with Alzheimer's treatments, many experts have low expectations. "When we see more data, that probability might change," she adds.

The current value of the market for Alzheimer's drugs stands at more than $3.7bn (£2.4bn), according to Ms Walton.

Patents for the leading drugs, such as namenda (also known as memantine) and aricept (also known as donepezil) have expired in recent years, making generic versions available.

That makes these treatments less expensive for patients - and less profitable for companies.

Shares of Eli Lilly have risen more than 30% over the past year, fuelled, in part, by optimism over solanezumab's ability to drastically reduce Alzheimer's progress in early-stage sufferers.

With the number of Alzheimer's sufferers across the world set to rise as people live longer, experts say the demand for Alzheimer's treatments could skyrocket, along with the costs.

A growing market

Yet Dr Amit Roy, founding partner of the research firm Foveal, says that pharmaceutical companies are not just chasing profits.

Pharmaceutical companies spend between 13-17% of their revenue on research and development of new treatments.

image copyrightPA
image captionAricept is a commonly prescribed Alzheimer's treatment.

That equals billions of dollars.

The drug companies' research efforts are determined by the science, "they're chasing the mechanism of action," says Dr Roy.

Creating a successful drug can cost a company $1bn (£642m), he says, including the price of the clinical trials that have to happen along the way.

As the average age of the world's population rises, research funding has moved from such conditions as heart disease, into oncology in the last decade.

"That is where the largest shift in research has taken place; from cardiology into cancer," says Dr Roy.

"It's probably the biggest drugs market there is."

And the drugs market looks set to keep growing, as the population gets older.

There was more research and development performed in the pharmaceutical sector than in any other in 2013, according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the industry's trade body - and the trend looks like it will continue.

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