Alzheimer's Summit: Some Rare Good News

November 20, 2013 - George Vradenburg

Editor's note: this blog post originally appeared on Huffington Post 50

It's been a tough couple of months for American healthcare. The sequester - blunt and arbitrary policy that it is - has paralyzed funding for basic medical research. And the launch of the Affordable Care Act has been, depending on your political persuasion, anything from a technical start-up glitch to a predictable debacle.

Indeed, the road to improving medicine and healthcare in the latter half of 2013 has been filled with bumps and potholes.

Yet, behind the noise, there are signals that a unified effort is arising to tackle one of the most feared and vexing diseases confronting America and the rest of the globe. You won't hear about it from your favorite talking head, but "The Alzheimer's Disease Summit: Path to 2025" may mark a pivotal moment in the quest to beat Alzheimer's.

The event - held recently by The Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer's Disease, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the National Institute on Aging - brought together a rich collection of leaders from across disciplines. Scientists, advocates, government agencies participated. As did representatives of finance, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, home care, biotechnology, and information technology. And voices from Asia, Europe, and North America were heard calling for a common strategy to achieve the goal of preventing and effectively treating Alzheimer's by 2025.

This was a monumental occasion for a devastating disease.

Alzheimer's - far more than the temporary dysfunctionality of any website - will shape the health and fiscal future of the U.S. and other nations across the globe in the 21st century. As the population ages globally, the prevalence of Alzheimer's is skyrocketing, forcing nations to adjust their economies "working aged" populations shrink and "retirees" grow.

Yet, as economics develop, scientific investment strategies are slow to adjust. Our science of aging in general - and with Alzheimer's in particular - lags woefully behind. The costs of Alzheimer's to society are escalating, already dwarfing the costs of cancer, HIV/AIDS and heart disease in the U.S. As one might expect, the annual deaths from cancer, HIV/AIDS and heart disease are declining just as those attributable to Alzheimer's escalate.

The solution - more fully realized through the Path to 2025 Summit - must be the product of unity across all stakeholders, combining the best insights and solutions from a diverse, unexpected range of industries and competencies. Much as the world came together to tackle HIV/AIDS, the world is coming together around Alzheimer's. The latest example is the British Prime Minister David Cameron's commitment to use his Presidency of the G8 to bring nations together in London next month to address Alzheimer's at a global level.

The Path to 2025 Summit had the fortune of building from previous work - notably the "Alzheimer's Disease Research Summit 2012: Path to Treatment and Prevention," held by the National Institutes of Health in May 2012. As a result, the Path to 2025 Summit was able to cast a wider net and cover a more diverse set of themes and subjects. From the broader set of thought leaders and stakeholders, an impressive, eclectic range of solutions were deliberated.

Three major themes emerged. First, clinical trial reforms are needed to reduce the time, cost, and risk of getting new medicines to market. This will create necessary incentives for industry and lead to better health outcomes for American families was well as much-needed savings for entitlement programs.

Second, innovative financing options need to be developed to mobilize philanthropic and private capital. This capital is required to fund research and drug development, as well as new technology-driven techniques, such as "big data." Done right, "big data" can accelerate discovery and engage at-risk individuals and families in the solutions to Alzheimer's.

The CEO Initiative, Sage BioNetworks, and the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer's Initiative took the "big data" discussion one step further by proposing two new, innovative challenges. The CEO Initiative/Sage challenge uses big data techniques to identify the mix of genomic, imaging, and clinical signals that best predict cognitive decline due to Alzheimer's. The Geoffrey Beene Foundation employs a high-tech challenge process to unlock the causes of the disparate impact of Alzheimer's on women.

These challenges are critical, because for all the excitement and grand ideas, the Path to 2025 Summit must be followed by concentrated, goal-oriented follow-through. That is exactly the purpose of these challenges.

Now, it is essential to take this momentum and use it to shape the global agenda. Alzheimer's must become a global priority worthy of ambitious, forward-looking investment, even in this brutal environment.

Looking ahead, there are two major opportunities to embed the ideas generated at the Path to 2025 Summit. First is the U.S. Congress, where Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) launched a new effort to increase dramatically the resources devoted by the NIH to Alzheimer's research. This effort is a response to the recommendations of the Advisory Council to HHS, and it marks a critical pairing between government investment and philanthropic and private capital.

Second is the upcoming G8 Summit in London. British Prime Minister David Cameron has declared that a goal of the UK's Presidency of the G8 is to lead a global initiative against Alzheimer's, and the Path to 2025 Summit should help shape the G8 initiative. Just as HIV/AIDS became a focus of the international community, so too must Alzheimer's.

It is understandable that there is a limited appetite for healthcare investment in the U.S. and around the globe today. Purse-strings are tight, and the outcomes of healthcare investment can seem far in the distance. But this is mistaken. Alzheimer's is an unparalleled threat to 21st century fiscal sustainability, and a short-term view of pennies saved will create a long-term result of dollars wasted. Let's hope the tick-tock news frenzy over the rollout of ACA subsides and our attention can be re-directed to the grave and growing global threat of Alzheimer's. The Path to 2025 Summit helped to point us in the right direction. Now it is critical that we all move forward together.

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