US biopharmaceutical companies currently have 98 drugs for use in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease either in clinical trials or awaiting regulatory review, says a US trade group.

Over 5 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s, and this costs the US health system $172 billion a year, not counting the personal costs to an estimated 11 million family members and friends who provide about 12 billion hours of unpaid care every year, says the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

And these figures are about to get much worse, as the first of 76 million American baby-boomers turn 65 in January. If no new medicines are found to prevent, delay or stop the disease’s progression, the number of US patients will jump to 13.5 million by 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association forecasts. And the costs of care for patients will increase five-fold to $1.08 trillion a year, which is more that the current US Department of Defense budget and nearly 25 times more than this year’s budget for the Department of Homeland Security, it adds.

Treatments for Alzheimer’s are currently scarce. In the US, five medications on the market temporarily reduce symptoms for some, but there is nothing to prevent, cure the disease or even delay onset or severity, notes PhRMA.

The trade association also points out that little attention has been paid in the US so far to the national crisis which will accompany the projected huge increase in the number of patients. In contrast, it says, 13 countries in Europe either have or are working on national plans to address Alzheimer’s; France, for example, has put in place a $2.2 billion plan which establishes caregiver coordination centres around the country and pledges “unprecedented efforts in research.”

Without action in the US, 10 million baby-boomers will die of the disease and the federal Medicare and Medicaid will go bankrupt, warns George Vradenburg, chairman of the patient advocacy group USAgainstAlzheimers. “The rising cost of caring for Alzheimer’s patients will amount to an astounding cumulative total of $2 trillion between now and 2020, and it will accelerate at an unsustainable rate thereafter. Researchers say we can stop Alzheimer’s by 2020, but only if we invest public and private resources to find a cure,” he says.

According to PhRMA, the 98 new treatments currently in research at its member companies include:
- an oral medicine that inhibits the formation and accumulation of amyloid-beta protein deposits and may also reduce tau protein from forming neurofibrillary tangles in the brain:
- an intranasal medicine that is able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, which is in development for mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. It has shown ability to reduce accumulation of both amyloid-beta and tau protein;
- a gene therapy for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, such as short term memory loss, which delivers a gene for nerve growth factor to the brain to prevent cell death and reverse memory loss; and
- a vaccine that targets the amyloid-beta protein in the brain which is designed to induce an immune response with specificity versus a systemic immune response.

“A breakthrough that delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by just five years would mean a significant drop in the number of Alzheimer’s patients - instead of 13.5 million Americans suffering from the disease in 2050, the number would be 7.7 - only a little more than today,” says PhRMA chief executive John Castellani. “Overall, a treatment to delay onset by five years would save the health care system $447 billion,” he adds.