Wyeth is spending million on research into developing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease despite the risks involved and one of the firm’s leading executives telling a major analysts’ healthcare meeting in the USA that its programmes “will probably fail.”

Speaking at the annual Lehman Brothers Global Healthcare Conference in Miami, Wyeth’s chief financial officer Kenneth Martin said the firm "will probably fail" in its goal to develop treatments for Alzheimer's, for which there are so far no truly effective treatments, but quickly qualified his statement in an interview with Reuters.

Mr Martin noted that his comments were not meant to cast doubt on the company's portfolio of Alzheimer's products and he believes Wyeth is in the vanguard of research, even though individual projects will more likely fall by the wayside. "The point is this is an extremely difficult disease, but because of the breadth of our programme and the different ways we are attempting to attack it, we may have a higher likelihood of succeeding than anybody," he told the news agency.

"If we fail, we will be a very strong company," Mr Martin said at the conference, "but we may not (fail). If we succeed, we will change the world, because Alzheimer's is an incredibly costly, burdensome and difficult problem of society. We will change the world and change the company."

Wyeth is thought to be working on 11 different Alzheimer’s programmes and potentially the two most promising are being conducted in partnership with Ireland’s Elan Corp. Leading the pack is the humanised monoclonal antibody AAB-001 (bapineuzumab) or AAB-001, that targets the amyloid beta peptide that accumulates in the brains of people with Alzheimer's and is thought to contribute to the degeneration of neurons underlying the disease. The drug is in Phase II trials.

More than five million Americans living with Alzheimers

Wyeth’s commitment to research came just as the USA’s Alzheimer’s Association issued a report stating that there are now more than five million people in the country living with the disease, a 10% increase from its previous estimate made in 2000.

The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is increasing age, notes the association, and with 78 million baby boomers beginning to turn 60 last year, it is estimated that someone in the USA develops the disease every 72 seconds. Without a cure or effective treatments to delay the onset or progression of Alzheimer’s, the prevalence could soar to 7.7 million people with the disease by 2030, the report added.

Harry Johns, president of the Alzheimer’s Association, said the figures show “the tremendous impact this disease is having on the nation and with the projected growth of the disease, the collective impact on individuals, families, Medicare, Medicaid, and businesses will be even greater.” However he concluded that “there is hope,” as there are currently nine drugs in Phase III clinical trials for Alzheimer’s, “several of which show great promise to slow or stop the progression of the disease.”