Research Communications Officer Louise Walker takes a look back over the year 2016 in dementia research.
When a new year begins, it is common for people to reflect on the past 12 months and think about what is to come.
The Research and Development team at Alzheimer’s Society are no exception, especially as 2016 was a very interesting year for dementia research. The news about dementia was continually fluctuating: one minute we heard the news that the number of people living with dementia was falling in both the US and the UK, and the next we heard that dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales. The same applies to the mixture of promising and disappointing results that came out of clinical trials this year.
Reflecting on this diverse and interesting year, we have broken down the research news from 2016 into three categories; not quite the good, the bad and the ugly, but more the good, the disappointing and the unusual!
Towards the tail-end of August, the pharmaceutical company Biogen released the data from its early-stage trial of a new drug, called aducanumab. Biogen had released promising looking data before that indicated the drug could have an effect on memory. This new data showed that aducanumab was effective at removing the Alzheimer’s hallmark amyloid protein from the brain, an important step forwards in the search for a new treatment.
We will however need to wait for the results of longer, larger, phase 3 trials to know whether these promising early signs will turn out to be genuine. There are also questions about the side effects of the drug, which included swelling in the brain. These side effects will need to be addressed during the larger trials.
This year there was an increasing sense of momentum in the dementia research community. A key part of this will be the Dementia Research Institute, a landmark initiative that will help to make the UK a focal point for world-leading dementia research. It was announced in December that the Director of the Institute will be the renowned dementia researcher Professor Bart De Strooper, who will be based at a central hub at UCL in London.
This year also saw Alzheimer’s Society announce a brand new, ambitious initiative that will transform the way we approach dementia care research. Our Care Research Programme grants will award up to £2 million for care researchers to focus on particular priority areas within dementia care. These priority areas were decided by consulting with people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s Society employees and volunteers, highlighting our dedication to involving those affected by dementia in our research. Watch this space in 2017 to find out more about the grants we are funding through this programme.
Despite some promising progress this year, there were also some disappointments. There was much anticipation about a potential Alzheimer’s treatment called solanezumab, developed by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. The drug had failed in an earlier trial, but when the researchers looked at the data it appeared that the drug could be effective for people in the earlier stages of the disease. This analysis suggested solanezumab could become the first drug to actually slow down the rate of progression of Alzheimer’s. However, in December a large phase 3 trial testing this theory produced negative results.
Further disappointment came with the announcement of the results of a trial of the first drug to target another Alzheimer’s hallmark, the tau protein. The drug, LMTX, was aiming to remove tangles of tau from the brain. Sadly, the results from this phase 3 trial showed that, despite some intriguing results, there were no improvements in thinking or memory for people taking the drug.
The good news is that the data from these trials was analysed in detail at a major conferences by leading researchers, who can learn from the findings and find ways to improve future trials. The research community, rather than allowing these setbacks to discourage them, has doubled down on their efforts to find a way to stop Alzheimer’s disease in its tracks.
The world of research is an interesting place, and in the quest to understand the causes or find cures for dementia can lead to some unusual findings. For example, research came out towards the end of the year that found that regular saunas could reduce the risk of dementia (although further study is needed!). Other unusual findings that came to our attention this year included early research into air pollution, how flickering lights could have an effect on the brain and how urine may be hold clues to memory problems.
2016 in a nutshell
It has been a bit of a rollercoaster year for dementia research, with some disappointing news balanced by some promising early results. Finding a cure or disease-modifying treatment remains a top priority for many international governments, including in the UK, and the momentum is really building in the dementia research community. We look forward to seeing how 2017 builds on this momentum and what the future will bring.