BRITAIN’S dementia research chief last night promised to “cure” the deadly disease within a decade.
Scientists in the UK are tantalisingly close to devising a simple blood test to predict those at risk of harrowing illnesses like Alzheimer’s.
The breakthrough would pave the way for a national screening programme to identify early those most susceptible.
Experts would then use a disease modifying therapy to slow the condition down and help those struck down manage the condition.
It means hundreds of thousands of people set to be dealt a devastating diagnosis would no longer be forced to live with a death sentence.
Professor Bart De Strooper, director of the UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI), said: “I think we will have a cure. In 10 years we will have a cure. I hope earlier.
“It is not an unrealistic goal. I want to interfere with this disease before it becomes dementia and that’s a cure.
“You start to see biochemical changes about 20 years before dementia manifests itself so if you could stabilise the disease in this insidious phase then that would be very good, that would also be a cure.”
He added: “It’s a bit like with cancer, you don’t hope to treat the patient when the cancer has taken over the body, you want to treat it in the beginning when you have limited trouble.
“If you have a diagnosis at forty or fifty then we will need to interfere with the disease like we do with heart defects by treating people aggressively with cholesterol-lowering drugs.”
Prof De Strooper, one of the world’s leading scientists and this year’s winner of the Brain Prize for neuroscience, revealed the groundbreaking work being carried out in London and around the UK.
There are 280 DRI researchers working across six universities to find the first effective therapy against the biggest health threat of our time.
In two years there will be 700 researchers as Britain becomes the frontline in the fight against dementia.
Scientists at the £250million DRI hub at University College London and five other centres are confident a therapy will be created to treat the causes of the as yet incurable condition, rather than simply mask its symptoms.
The aim is to develop this by 2025.
The Daily Express had unprecedented access to multi-million pound laboratories where cutting-edge science offers hope for millions.
Today we can reveal that scientists are within touching distance of offering a quick test that could be carried out in GP surgeries to predict risk, raising the possibility of a national screening programme where everyone in their forties or fifties is assessed for their chances of developing the condition.
The race to find an effective therapy comes as stark figures reveal the true scale of the crisis that awaits.
Almost one million people now live with dementia in the UK.
About 10 per cent of those are over the age of 65 while one in three are over 85.
But by 2050 two million people in the UK will be living with dementia unless something is done to prevent it.
Dr Adrian Ivinson, DRI chief operating officer, said: “We don’t have a blood test yet but that is what we are hoping for and where we are heading. Some of the big programmes within the institute are focused on that. It might be a few years but it’s a realistic prospect.
“A national screening programme is where we should be heading, just like cholesterol and heart disease.
“The idea is you would go in your late forties to fifties. In addition to your cholesterol and blood pressure check would be a dementia blood test.
“We are nowhere near the peak of the crisis, we are just building.”
Scientists at UCL, Cardiff University, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London, King’s College London, and the University of Cambridge, are working on improving our fundamental understanding of the very early molecular events that trigger the disease.
They believe these events, which happen 20 or 30 years before symptoms appear, set in motion a devastating chain reaction that leads to a disease which is known as the “long goodbye”.
It typically starts with forgetfulness and can progress to complete loss of memory, leaving sufferers bed bound and mute, causing huge distress to families.
One in every three people born this year is expected to develop dementia which is now more feared than cancer.
Research shows it doubles every five years above the age of 65 in the population. Yet if it was delayed by five years, this could be halved.
Scientists at the DRI are devising strategies and eventually drugs that will either halt, or at least slow deterioration down, so sufferers can live longer without developing any outward signs of dementia.
DRI scientists already have ideas on how to interfere with the disease process.
These include improving how the immune system copes with an ageing brain and avoiding the slow build up of toxic proteins.
DRI researcher Prof Adrian Isaacs and his team have screened 22,000 small molecules and found 22 which they believe play a part in fronto-temporal dementia, linked to personality, behaviour and language.
He said: “I have no doubt that we will have something that will slow down dementia. If we don’t have something then we will have all failed.”
‘HIDDEN’ CARERS FAIL TO PROP UP SYSTEM
THE Alzheimer’s Society today warns that Britain’s estimated 670,000 “hidden” dementia carers cannot continue to prop up a broken care system.
Research by the charity has revealed the incalculable physical and emotional cost to the hundreds of thousands looking after friends or family with the condition.
Although 95 per cent of those questioned saw it as their duty to care for a loved one, the possibility of being a dementia carer was a great concern.
Lynda, who was her husband Michael’s carer for 12 years after he had dementia diagnosed, said: “We spent some of our savings on day care occasionally but other than that I looked after him alone, feeding him, dressing him, helping him to the toilet.
“People don’t understand how challenging it is. There is no logic to Michael’s thoughts or actions, which makes it very difficult to care for him.”
Anyone affected by dementia can get support and advice at alzheimers.org.uk or call the National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122.
To share your experiences as a dementia carer, visit nationaldementiacarersday.co.uk or search #NDCD18 on Facebook and Twitter.
COMMENT BY BART DE STROOPER
IN the next 20 to 30 years we will see a doubling of the number of dementia patients which will really crush our social system.
We will have fewer people to care and many more people for which care is needed. It is very clear we need to find something before that date which is not too far away. The idea is to prevent it.
We are more interested in what happens before dementia is there.
It’s a bit like with cancer, you want to treat it in the beginning.
You start to see biochemical changes about 20 years before dementia manifests itself.
So if you could stabilise the disease in this insidious phase then that would be good and a cure.
With neuro-generative disorders in many cases there is an abnormal folding of proteins which drive the disease or initiate it.