In April, the Congressional Budget Office reported the U.S. annual budget deficit will reach $1 trillion by 2020. That’s a troubling trajectory, but no one in Washington seems to care enough to stop spending money.
I only see one answer. Washington needs to spend more money. Spending in one area now might actually help avert a fiscal apocalypse later.
That would cost Medicare and Medicaid $750 billion; the equivalent of one-fifth of the federal government’s entire current budget.
According to Dr. Greg Petsko of Weill Cornell Medical College, Alzheimer’s is “the hardest medical problem humankind has ever tried to crack.”
And yet the emerging hope among scientists — and the hopelessness of Washington — makes finding a cure for Alzheimer’s perhaps the most realistic option available to avert a future fiscal crisis in the U.S.
According to Dr. Petsko, Alzheimer’s is one of the few problems where throwing money at it may actually be a good idea.
Scientists still don’t fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s or how and why it progresses.
Expanding this understanding entails the kind of basic research that typically gets done in government and academic research labs. U.S. pharmaceutical companies are amazing engines of innovation, but the compounds they develop often work on targets that have already been identified somewhere else.
And, researchers need to find more targets. Alzheimer’s drugs that have reached human clinical trials have failed at a high rate — about 99.6 percent since 2003 according to one analysis. The five Alzheimer’s treatments that are currently available only treat symptoms, without preventing, slowing or reversing the disease.
According to Dr. Howard Fillit, Chief Science Officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF), translating research about disease biology into treatments for chronic disease often takes 30 or more years. Today’s breakthrough cancer therapies are built on yesterday’s federal investments in basic science through entities like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute.
Earlier this year, Congress passed a budget-busting spending bill that featured at least one silver lining: The NIH received its biggest funding boost in 15 years, including a 30 percent increase in Alzheimer’s research funding.
But according to Dr. Petsko, NIH funding for Alzheimer’s and Dementia research — at about $1.4 billion annually — still lags well behind what researchers need and what other diseases already get, with AIDS getting $3 billion and cancer $6 billion.
More federal research funding for Alzheimer’s would attract more top-tier scientific talent to the field. As Dr. Petsko said, “Researchers follow the grant dollars.”
It could also answer specific questions that badly need answers. For example:
- Beta amyloid protein plaques are a notable sign of a brain with Alzheimer’s. But no less a figure than Alois Alzheimer — the doctor who discovered the disease — suggested these plaques weren’t responsible for the degeneration of brain neurons. What is?
- Early Alzheimer’s research suffered from over-reliance on bad animal models and clinical trials that studied patients who already had late-stage disease. How can researchers design better clinical trials that can reach and track patients earlier?
- The brain, like the body, has an immune system. How can it be mobilized to fight Alzheimer’s?
Research is underway now in several of these areas. If history is any guide, most of this research will end in failure. And that’s OK, as more studies and more research dollars will enable scientists to “fail fast and succeed faster.”
Dr. Petsko thinks that with the proper investment in research, from government, philanthropy and the private sector, we could have Alzheimer’s treatments that alter the course of the underlying disease within a decade. Failing to make this investment could set this effort back an additional 10 or 20 years.
That’s not a risk anyone in Washington should be willing to take. If there is a potential cure for Alzheimer’s, it should not go undiscovered for lack of a few billion dollars in a four thousand-billion-dollar annual budget.
Our politicians aren’t willing to fix America’s budget woes. With a little help, maybe our scientists can.
Andrew Tisch is the chairman of Loews Corporation and a cofounder of the national political reform group No Labels.