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Dr Charles Scerri comments on Pfizer ending its research into Alzheimer's drugs

Monday 29 January 2018

There have been a number of recent media headlines, about US-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer ending its research into Alzheimer's and Parkinson’s drugs.

We asked Dr Charles Scerri, Vice-Chairperson of Alzheimer Europe and co-founder and general secretary of the Malta Dementia Society, to comment. Dr Scerri currently lectures in neuropharmacology at the University of Malta. He is also a member of the JPND Scientific Advisory Board and of INTERDEM.

Find out more about Dr Scerri here:

http://alzheimer-europe.org/Alzheimer-Europe/Who-we-are/Our-Board/Charles-Scerri

At the beginning of the year, Pfizer announced that it was ending its research in the neuroscience field including the development of new drugs for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, the two most important neurodegenerative disease in old age.

Although this may come as a surprise to many, the long list of clinical trials’ failure to meet the desired endpoints, especially in the Alzheimer area, is slowly denting the long-standing commitment that many pharmaceutical companies made in fighting what has been considered as the disease of the century.

To those working in the field, this decision is indeed very disappointing and will surely impact negatively on the hopes of many million individuals who are living with the disease.

Drug development is a costly business involving billions of euros in research and development with no guarantee of success. The last drug to be developed for Alzheimer’s disease was approved in 2003 and although a lot of money has been funnelled into trying to come up with other pharmacological agents, none have reached market approval.

There may be various reasons for this. As some experts in the field have suggested, we may be looking at the wrong target, and that we still have a long way to go to fully understand the pathophysiological process underlying the disease and that current interventions occur too late. Others argue that the pharmaceutical industry, faced with lack of tangible results, is shifting its focus to other areas of pharmacological development where, possibly, scientific research is more developed and the potential for success is greater.

This is not to say that we have not made significant strides in understanding the underlying biology of the most common forms of dementia. This last two decades were characterised by important advancements in the field. One example worth mentioning is the discovery and use of a number of biomarkers as an important tool in diagnosis. Yet another is the important advance we have made in the understanding of dementia risk and protective factors.

However, the brain is a complex organ and we are still far off fully understanding important brain activities such as learning, thinking and memory, all of which become impaired in individuals with the most common forms of dementia. Such a complexity also makes the discovery of new drugs a tremendous challenge.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Pfizer said that it plans to dedicate a neuroscience venture fund to continue supporting in this area. Other pharmaceutical companies remain committed to the disease in the hope of finding disease-modifying treatments. The long-term potential is very promising despite the many setbacks. Many Alzheimer’s associations will continue their funding programmes and campaigning their governments and global organisations to put dementia research higher up in their agendas. It is only through a collaborative effort that we can finally defeat Alzheimer’s disease in the years to come. Dementia is too big for us to lose hope.

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