What’s the future for Alzheimer’s disease research?
That may be a question some Alzheimer’s patients’ advocates are asking after one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies announced it will no longer research new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Earlier this month, Dr. Mikael Dolsten, president of Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development, wrote in a statement sent to NPR, “We recognize the immense disappointment in the broader community, and we share this. At a personal level, many of us have seen first-hand the devastation of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”
Dolsten said that, due to recent setbacks, Pfizer’s research efforts “were simply not making the progress necessary to translate into truly transformational therapies for patients.”
The news means that the company will likely eliminate 300 positions from its neuroscience discovery and early development programs, reallocating the money spent on research.
In its statement, Pfizer officials added the company will “continue to fully support” development on tanezumab and Lyrica, two treatments that target chronic pain, as well as programs researching rare neurological diseases.
However, its current research efforts for Alzheimer’s will be coming to an end.
One reason appears to be the lack of new drugs that have developed from clinical trials and other research.
In fact, as Healthline reported last year, there hasn’t been a new Alzheimer’s drug in 10 years.
For Pfizer, there’ve been a number of setbacks in research in this field, according to a Reuters report. This includes the 2012 announcement that the drug bapineuzumab had failed to help people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
Over the past 20 years, Pfizer sponsored at least 99 trials of 24 potential Alzheimer’s drugs. Only Aricept was approved, according to a report in Newsweek.
That’s a lot of investment money that doesn’t lead to marketable products.
The Pfizer announcement did send some shockwaves through the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s communities.
“The report of Pfizer’s decision to end its Alzheimer’s drug research and trials is a gut punch to the millions of people with Alzheimer’s, their caregivers and families let alone the folks that will be losing their jobs,” Jeff Borghoff, who’s getting treatment now for early onset Alzheimer’s, told Newsweek.
There’s a fear this might become a trend.
“Other pharmaceutical companies are also weighing this option and if the biggest of the bunch decides to exit the party, it might have a ripple effect on the others,” James Beck, PhD, the chief scientific officer at the Parkinson’s Foundation, also told Newsweek.
In a statement, the Alzheimer’s Association — the largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer’s disease research — announced their “disappointment” with the decision. They note that “much of the knowledge we have gained about potential new treatments have been from clinical trials that have failed to meet end points.”
While the Pfizer news is a definite setback, it shouldn’t overshadow the positive momentum generated in recent years when it comes to Alzheimer’s research, according to an Alzheimer’s Association representative interviewed by Healthline.
More funding needed
Alzheimer’s is a difficult and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disease that worsens over time.
“When you look at the sheer numbers of people that are affected by this disease, 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, while 15 million people are providing care and support for someone with Alzheimer’s or related dementia,” Heather Snyder, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific operations and relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.
Snyder says that, because the disease is so widespread, it’s crucial that stakeholders find a way to invest in finding a cure.
“It’s going to take all of us — it’s going to take organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s going to take our federal government to invest in this disease and get ahead of it, to find treatments that are helping those that are affected today while finding ways of preventing or slowing the disease tomorrow,” said Snyder. “And it’s really putting all of that together that’s going to get us to where we need to be.”
Snyder says there are still reasons for optimism when it comes to Alzheimer’s research.
“I think we’ve made a significant amount of headway in the last decade in terms of our understanding of the disease, the amount of new knowledge that we’ve gained from both the underlying biology and changes that are happening in the brain a decade or more before someone experiences the memory symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s,” said Snyder. “This really opens up the door for us to be thinking about prevention and thinking about early intervention.”
Pfizer says that, in lieu of researching new Alzheimer’s drugs, it plans to create a venture fund to invest in biotech companies that are conducting neuroscience research.
“[Pfizer] isn’t completely pulling out,” notes Snyder. “They’re looking at — and this is what we’re seeing across the whole sector — this trend of really investing in the late stage development of phase 2 and phase 3.”
Just last year, Congress approved a $400 million increase in Alzheimer’s research funding, a move that increased federal funding at the National Institutes of Health to about $1.4 billion.
“The Alzheimer’s Association recognizes that while that funding is a huge success and really exciting — something to celebrate — we’re still not where we need to be either,” said Snyder. “And we need to continue to advocate for increased resources, where the scientific community has told us we need to be. Currently, there’s an additional $414 million that the Alzheimer’s Association is advocating is added to the base.”
Snyder says that Pfizer’s announcement could be a sign that more pharmaceutical companies are looking to focus their research on late stage development, rather than developing new drugs.
“We’re seeing more of this happen through partnerships, through different licensing agreements or outright purchases of smaller companies,” she said. “Really, we’re seeing that happen across the entire sector.”
Alzheimer’s Association confident
The Alzheimer’s Association is quick to point out that Pfizer’s decision doesn’t undo the positive gains made in recent years when it comes to understanding the disease.
“Even knowing the obstacles, we have never been as optimistic as we are today,” they said in their statement. “The Alzheimer’s Association is confident that we will change the trajectory of this disease.”
Snyder says that, in the big picture, stakeholders — including pharmaceutical companies, the federal government, the nonprofit sector, and her own organization — have helped push Alzheimer’s research in the right direction.
“We are further today than we’ve ever been, and we need to continue to redouble our efforts and move forward,” she said.
“We are doing that at the federal level, the Alzheimer’s Association is doing that, and it’s really by all of us working together, getting involved, being an advocate, volunteering for a clinical trial, that we’re going to turn the course of this disease.”