A fifteen-member Scientific Advisory Board today starts work on setting the agenda for a pan-European programme to tackle neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

The board, which comprises leading neurodegenerative disease scientists from Europe and elsewhere in the world, will advise on the development and implementation of a Strategic Research Agenda for the Joint Programme on Neurodegenerative Disease (JPND).

The ultimate goal of the JPND, which involves 24 European countries, is to accelerate progress towards understanding the causes of debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s, leading not only to early diagnosis and the development of new treatment and prevention strategies, but also to more effective medical and social care that can improve the quality of life for patients and care givers.

The Strategic Research Agenda will encompass basic, clinical and social research, including models of healthcare delivery. Implementing the agenda calls for innovative approaches to pooling expertise and resources that address the fragmentation and duplication of current research efforts.

According to Professor Philippe Amouyel, chair of the JPND Management Board, the programme is “an exciting opportunity for Europe to take the lead in tackling one of the biggest socio-economic challenges we face in our future”. To date, he noted, neurodegenerative diseases have not attracted comparable levels of funding to conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, despite having a significant impact on healthy life.

Neurodegenerative diseases are also strongly aligned to aging, and the proportion of the European population over 65 years old is expected to swell from 16% at present to 25% in 2030.

In 2006, European health services paid out an estimated €72 billion to treat neurodegenerative diseases, but available treatments are limited and are largely geared to symptoms rather than causes, while the full costs of neurodegenerative diseases may be much higher.

Last year, for example, the European Commission said that in 2005 the total direct and informal costs of care for Alzheimer’s and related diseases came to €130 billion across the EU, 56% of which went on informal care.

The Commission issued a proposal to the Competitiveness Council for a pilot Joint Programming initiative to combat neurodegenerative diseases last July. Joint Programming is a new approach proposed by the Commission in 2008 to address the key challenges facing European societies in the coming years, such as major diseases, climate change or energy supply.

The idea is to optimise the EU’s capacity to confront these challenges through publicly funded research by bringing together the relevant funding bodies, researchers and existing research evidence so that tools, techniques and other resources can be shared more efficiently among member states.