The Cameron government has pledged to more than double annual funding for research into dementia and neurodegenerative diseases to over £66 million by 2014/15.

The commitment was announced by Prime Minister David Cameron as part of a broader dementia challenge that will build on England’s existing National Dementia Strategy to drive up diagnosis rates, raise public awareness of the condition and improve the quality of care for people living with dementia.

The financial boost will raise to an estimated £66.3 million the combined value of funding for dementia research from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Total funding from these organisations for dementia research in England was £26.6 million in 2009/10, the government said.

Punching below its weight

The pledge comes against a backdrop of recent criticism that the UK has been punching below its weight in dementia research, with high-quality output but a relatively neglected research base that lags behind higher-profile categories such as cancer, stroke and heart disease.

At the same time, a new report from the Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia 2012: A national challenge, has mapped out the human and economic cost of dementia, both now and to come.

There are already 800,000 people living with dementia in the UK and an estimated 670,000 family members and friends acting as primary carers, the report notes.

The current financial cost of the disease to the National Health Service, local authorities and families is £23 billion a year, which is expected to reach £27 billion by 2018.

“Yet this significant spend is often not being deployed effectively and is not delivering good outcomes for people with dementia and carers,” the report warns.

Further and faster

Under the prime minister’s dementia challenge to society, the medical profession, business and government, the aim is to “go further and faster” towards delivering major improvements in dementia care, awareness and research by 2015.

Three ‘Champion Groups’ have been set up to direct work these areas. They will report back to the prime minister in six months’ time.

The research Champion Group will be co-chaired by Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, and Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England.

Work in this area will continue to be led by the Ministerial Advisory Group on Dementia Research on behalf of Paul Burstow, Minister of State for Care Services.

World leader

According the government, the UK is already a world leader in dementia research, yet “not enough is known about the disease and the level of public participation in dementia research remains low”.

Among the major challenges are significantly increasing dementia research capacity and capability; understanding better the mechanisms of the disease and likely targets for intervention; and translating research into practice that affects quality of life.

“We would like people to feel confident that we are making significant progress towards prevention, treatment and cure in the UK, and to be able to say that they wanted to take part in research and were able to do so,” the dementia challenge document states.

The funding commitment includes £13 million for social-science research and £36 million over five years for a new NIHR dementia translational research collaboration.

Four new NIHR biomedical research units in dementia as well as biomedical research centres whose work includes dementia-themed research “will share their considerable resources and world-leading expertise to improve treatment and care”, the government says.

The Medical Research Council will invest in dementia research via the long-term BioBank programme, with a brain-scan pilot expected to attract 50,000 to 100,000 participants.

Research participation

Besides the hike in research funding, the government will be widening opportunities for people with dementia to take part in research.

Inviting patient consent to participate in dementia research will become part of a quality marker for memory clinics. The goal is to recruit 10% of patients into clinical trials for dementia.

Compared with other conditions such as cancer, the level of public engagement in dementia research – whether through donation or direct participation in studies – is low, the challenge document points out.

“When people are offered the opportunity to take part in the research, they are often keen to do so,” it says.

“However, people with dementia and their carers are not routinely offered the opportunity to participate in high-quality research and there is no nationally consistent system to enable them to do so, should they wish.”

Critical period

Dr Michael Hutton, chief scientific officer, neurodegeneration at Eli Lilly, pointed out that a “handful” of potential new disease-modifying therapies for Alzheimer’s (AD) are now nearing the end of clinical trials.