Damian Green MP is Chair of the One Nation Caucus and is MP for Ashford.
As a nation we are always obsessed by health issues. For obvious reasons, this has peaked over the past two years. Yet very few people know that the leading cause of death in this country is dementia. Almost one million people in the UK have this devastating condition, which affects not only their memory but also potentially their ability to walk or communicate. People with dementia were amongst the hardest hit by the pandemic – 25 per cent of people who died from coronavirus in England and Wales also had dementia.
The number of people living with dementia is growing faster than any other of the leading causes of death in the UK. It is predicted that one in three people born today are likely to be diagnosed with the condition in their lifetime. Even now, at least half of us know someone affected by dementia and have witnessed first-hand the awful impact it has on families. My father suffered from dementia in the last years of his life so I experienced how cruel a disease it is personally.
The cost of the disease to the economy is £25 billion a year and this is predicted to rise to £30 billion by 2030. What makes these statistics even starker is that there are few treatment options, none of which stop or slow the diseases that cause dementia. In fact, it’s been almost 10 years since a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (the most common cause of dementia) was made available in the UK.
Although the situation seems overwhelming, there is hope. Covid-19 posed a similar challenge only two years ago. A dangerous disease with no treatment options was brought under control through an unprecedented collaboration between research institutions, industry, the NHS, and government. Given the parallels with dementia, an inspired research community is now looking at how to apply this winning formula to developing new medicines for diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Under Conservative governments great progress has been made in dementia research since 2010. A significant increase in funding has enabled flagship initiatives such as the UK Dementia Research Institute and Dementias Platform UK. Collaborations across the scientific community are helping to fill the knowledge gap, such as the recent ground-breaking discovery of 42 new genes associated with a risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
To convert these breakthroughs into the first new medicines in a generation, we need to go further in our support of this field. Yes, this includes increasing funding – but it also requires the same leadership our government showed on Covid. We need to become a scientific superpower in dementia, just like we did with Covid.
The undeniable success of the UK Vaccine Taskforce to drive the development and production of the coronavirus vaccine at unprecedented speed demonstrated the UK’s leadership in science and innovation on the global stage. With this example, we have seen first-hand the possibility of saving lives through joint working by business, science, and the NHS, harnessing their collective energy and determination. Why not apply this radical approach to dementia?
In a recent open letter to the Prime Minister, a group of leading dementia scientists urged the government to show the same unwavering commitment that delivered the Covid vaccines to the search for dementia treatments. Specifically, Alzheimer’s Research UK is leading a call for the establishment of a ‘Dementia Medicines Taskforce’. They state this would “build on existing UK initiatives and act as a catalyst for radical action to accelerate the development of new dementia treatments… sending a clear signal about the UK’s ambition to the global life sciences sector, and crucially, to everyone affected by dementia”.
This cross-sector Taskforce could oversee a new approach both to responding to dementia and to the implementation of new medicines from bench to bedside. It would minimise gaps and tackle duplication in the current approach to dementia research, identifying promising treatments and speeding up clinical trials.
I very strongly support this approach. The scale of the problem is undeniable. This bold, coordinated action would not only maintain momentum in research, bringing us closer to urgently needed new treatments, but would enable us to deliver on the dementia aspects of the government’s Life Sciences Vision and attract the talents of scientists globally.
We are at a tipping point in dementia research, with the important discoveries made in the UK giving us an enormous opportunity to end the wait for new dementia treatments. I am pleased to see real enthusiasm from the sector to make the most of this opportunity, but now it is over to Ministers to help see it over the line.