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Headlines Published on 31 July 2006

Title Ageing and memory diseases: the Alzheimer’s story

To round off this week focused on health and ageing, Headlines draws on a recent commentary published in the July Nature Medicine which examines the EU’s research and policy footprint on the most debilitating of brain diseases – Alzheimer’s. 

Early retirement can mean a drop in mental stimulation. © PhotoDisc
Early retirement can mean a drop in mental stimulation.
© PhotoDisc
Sometimes referred to as the ‘memory disease’, Alzheimer’s is the major contributor to dementia – a condition affecting some 5 million people in the EU alone. On top of the pain and suffering it inflicts on the individuals and their families, the disease takes a sizeable toll on health care systems – and growing as Europeans live longer and retire earlier.

The European Commission is well aware of the burden and challenges this field presents the scientific community and society as a whole. From its Fifth to its Sixth Framework Programme (FP5 and FP6) for research, it negotiated a doubling of funding – from €20 to €40 million – to be made available to Alzheimer’s researchers. It stressed the need for critical mass and collaboration among the actors to address this cruel disease and cut the amount of duplicated effort across the Union.

Although these amounts may appear small compared to the scale of the problem, note the authors Philippe Cupers, Jürgen Sautter and Alain Vanvossel, “it should be kept in mind that the budget for research and development, managed by the EU Framework Programmes, represents only approximately 5% of the total amount of public money spent on research in Europe”.

As FP6 draws to a close (it ran from 2002-2006), the Commission has managed to assemble a strong stable of Integrated Projects, Networks of Excellence, Specific Targeted Research Projects (STREPS) and ERA-NET projects helping to strengthen the foundations of the European Research Area in this field and beyond. And Europe needs every one of them to tackle Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Ageing disease
Brain diseases currently contribute to 35% of the total burden of all diseases in Europe, according to sources quoted in the commentary. Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia take up 3% of that total, making them the second-leading cause of brain conditions behind unipolar depressive disorders. Between 5.9% and 9.4% of European citizens older than 65 suffer from dementia, the bulk of cases being Alzheimer’s. And it increases with age, affecting 28.5% of the population over 90.

“Increasing lifespan, however, will boost this number dramatically in the forthcoming years,” note the authors, “with potentially more than 10 million people affected by dementia in the year 2050.”

EU-funded projects, such as APOPIS, ADIT and InnoMed-AddNeuroMed, are on the task, providing a translational approach to the study of Alzheimer’s, from basic molecular and cellular mechanisms of the disease to identification and validation of new surrogate markers and therapeutic drug targets. Emphasis is also on the mechanisms and role of protein aggregation, a common feature of many neurodegenerative diseases, the commentary explains.

Large networks, like the NeuroNE, are putting the collective knowledge of 22 leading academic research groups and five SMEs towards an integrated and multidisciplinary research programme of functional genomics, proteomics, physiology, chemistry and clinical studies.

In FP7, the Commission is keen to continue its work in this important medical research, especially collaborative efforts focused on “the brain and related diseases, human development and ageing”. It is also proposing to launch new funding schemes, reinforce many of the current ones, and introduce measures to simplify and strengthen EU-funded research. “[In] addition to the proposed budget increase for European research in FP7, compared to FP6, it is expected that FP7 will offer a broad range of possibilities to address Alzheimer’s disease research at the EU level,” the authors conclude.

Source:  Nature Medicine

More information:

  • European Union research policy and funding for Alzheimer's disease (Nature Medicine, subscriber access only)
  • FP5 projects
  • FP6 homepage
  • Towards FP7
  • Integrated Projects
  • Networks of Excellence

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