WASHINGTON – Dr. Ronald Petersen did not promise the Senate Special Committee on Aging a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in 10 years. But on Wednesday, the Mayo Clinic’s director of Alzheimer’s research held out hope for highly effective treatments in a decade if the government significantly increases its investment in research.
Last year, Alzheimer’s, the disease that has become the curse of 5.3 million Americans and the fear of tens of millions more, received less than $600 million in research funding. That compares with $5.3 billion for cancer, $3 billion for HIV/AIDS and $2 billion for heart disease.
Petersen chairs the advisory council of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, a 2010 law that required a federal plan to address dementia. Petersen told the committee on aging that scientific investigators will need at least $2 billion a year to make good on a 2025 deadline to significantly reduce the disease’s impact.
“We cannot wait until there is a more convenient time to increase funding,” Petersen warned.
To delay or cut Alzheimer’s funding, said Petersen, “we’re turning off a younger generation of investigators.”
In an interview with the Star Tribune, Petersen said he was “not suggesting that they take money from another disease, but the government has to take a stand.”
Petersen joined two other physicians, an Alzheimer’s patient and a pair of caregivers offering testimony in a room packed with 300 people. Most wore purple sashes bearing the insignia of the Alzheimer’s Association.
The emotional two-hour hearing came as the Senate debated a budget proposed by the Republican majority that would cut funding to the National Institutes of Health, which hands out government research grants. The House GOP budget also envisions cuts to the NIH. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee on aging’s chairwoman, said she hopes to add an amendment to the budget that specifies an increase for Alzheimer’s research.
Collins and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are already cosponsors of a bill to double Alzheimer’s research funding from its current level and to raise funding to $2 billion per year in five years.
“Alzheimer’s takes a tremendous personal and economic toll on families in Minnesota and across the country,” Klobuchar said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. “With cases of this horrific disease expected to triple by 2050, we need to invest now in the cutting-edge research.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., insisted that the country will miss “a real chance to make progress” if the proposed NIH cuts stand. And Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking minority member of the special committee, urged advocates for Alzheimer’s victims and their families “to hold everyone’s feet to the fire.”
Petersen said researchers are “on the precipice” of finding ways to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s or slow its progress once it takes hold of the brain.
Nevertheless, Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, said the NIH currently cannot pay for half of the Alzheimer’s research projects that it judges worthy of funding.
What Petersen and others in the scientific community aim to find are ways to identify and treat genetic and physical markers of Alzheimer’s and other serious forms of dementia before people suffer memory loss, confusion, brain damage and eventually die. Dementia currently ranks as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“From a public health perspective,” Petersen testified, “we cannot wait until individuals become symptomatic; we must address the earliest biologic underpinnings of the disease.”
Mayo has conducted studies that identified Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid proteins in 30 percent of people 70 or older, Petersen said. The clinic is now expanding amyloid screening down to 50-year-olds.
Other studies are looking at drugs designed to destroy amyloids and to determine unique gene sequences in Alzheimer’s victims.
If successful, Petersen said, “we may be able to postpone the onset of the disease, maybe forever.”
Petersen, who also serves on the World Dementia Council, praised Klobuchar and Collins for their Alzheimer’s funding bill.
“The difficulty for some in Congress is that people have to make a tough decision now with the payoff far down the road,” Petersen told the Star Tribune.
In 2015, the U.S. is expected to spend $226 billion on people with Alzheimer’s. Family members and friends will offer hundreds of billions more in uncompensated care.
In a recent article in the British scientific journal the Lancet, Petersen and British researcher Nick Fox of University College London challenged countries around the world to spend 1 percent of the money they spend treating dementia on research to prevent it.
Otherwise, Petersen testified, “Alzheimer’s disease will bankrupt the healthcare system as we know it today.”
As baby boomers age the number of U.S. Alzheimer’s victims are expected to grow from 5.3 million in 2015 to more than 13 million by 2050. Treatment costs are expected to rise meteorically to $1.1 trillion per year by 2050 without major breakthroughs.
In contrast, said Petersen, “all the economic models show that investments in more research will be recouped quickly.”