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Alzheimer's Advocates Fight for Piece of Research Pie

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Smith is putting together a bill that would seek to establish such a fund, which he hopes to bring forward in a few weeks.

But he also called the funding level inadequate and said he would be pushing for an increase in the fiscal 2015 budget that lines up with a Senate resolution (S Res 303) sponsored by Maine Republican Susan Collins. The resolution calls for doubling U.S. spending on Alzheimer’s research in fiscal 2015, which Vradenburg said would bring spending to $1 billion, and setting a path over the following four years to get to $2 billion a year.

Cynthia Bens, vice president of public policy at the Alliance for Aging Research, said the direct U.S. costs of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias illustrate the urgency of the situation. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, those costs were estimated to be $203 billion in 2013, including $142 billion in Medicare and Medicaid costs.

“It’s one of those diseases that, you know, we can’t care to ignore anymore,” Bens said. Her group is one of the leaders of a coalition called Friends of the National Institute on Aging that asked for a $300 million increase over fiscal 2012 levels for Alzheimer’s and aging research in fiscal 2014.

Under the current fiscal constraints, some laudable research projects are falling off the table, an NIH leader said. At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing last month held by Smith, he asked National Institute on Aging Director Richard J. Hodes if Congress and other countries are appropriating sufficient money for Alzheimer’s research.

Hodes said the scientific opportunities “far exceed” his agency’s ability to fund all meritorious ideas. The current success rate for applications is about 15 percent, he noted, but nearly 30 percent are seen as meritorious.

Vradenburg and Smith view a global fund as a way to achieve the scale of change necessary to take on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Both use the term Alzheimer’s to represent all forms of dementia.

“The idea of a global fund for Alzheimer’s disease would, I believe, almost exponentially move the mitigation and someday eradication of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Smith, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s Disease.

The problem, after all, is a global one. Alzheimer’s Disease International estimated 44 million people worldwide were living with dementia in 2013, and that number is expected to jump to 135 million in 2050.

Vradenburg said the idea came up at the G-8 summit on dementia in December, where the British announced they would appoint a global dementia envoy whose role would include exploring the development of a global fund.

While he thinks the concept received a positive reception at the congressional hearing, Vradenburg also said he thinks the fund is “a ways away.” And he acknowledged that competition from advocates for other diseases is inevitable.

“I am confident that the shifting of that much resource will produce a number of arguments from others who think that they are entitled to a global fund or others who think that they ought to be the recipient of investments from the global fund,” he said.

Smith said he sees parallels between the international momentum that led to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the movement around Alzheimer’s. But advocates also acknowledge that Alzheimer’s faces some unique challenges as it competes for medical research dollars.

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