The news last week that two of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are going to abandon advanced-stage clinical trials after the failure of the most likely drugs is an another blow to Alzheimer’s patients.

Alzheimer’s Research UK has released a statement making the case that despite these setbacks we shouldn’t give up on finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects an estimated 500,000 people in the UK—predicted to grow to a million of us by 2021. Alzheimer’s Research UK is currently supporting 125 research projects designed to find ways of preventing and treating Alzheimer’s. Research charities like this often put in the early stage work to find treatments for diseases—leading on the basic research that drug companies will then take on to clinical trial. The cost of drug trials is very expensive, Pfizer reportedly lost $750m on one of the recent Alzheimer’s drugs that didn’t work, and so drug companies only pick the best opportunities to develop. The recent cuts in the pharmaceutical industry to neuroscience departments make it even less likely that further Alzheimer’s research will be picked up by the drug companies.

Those charities working on research into Alzheimer’s will now have to look at how they can achieve their vision of a ‘world free from dementia’ when a crucial link in the chain, the drug companies, are wary of investing any more. Unfortunately, the combined £10m spending on research at the UK’s top two Alzheimer’s charities is only a fraction of what a drug trial costs, so there is no possibility that research charities could ever go it alone. Research charities need to find ways to make their areas attractive to the pharmaceutical companies which do not always have the same motivations: Cancer Research UK is leading on this in the UK, for example signing an alliance on early-stage clinical trials with AstraZeneca in 2011.

This isn’t always easy for charities, which eye drug companies’ marketing budgets in the billions, globally, and dream of what could be achieved if even an equal amount was spent on research. Some research charities have already been thinking about how they can help drug companies work on their disease area. LLR (Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research), for example, launched last year its Trials Acceleration Programme, making it easier for companies to conduct clinical trials by organising suitable patients, When the prize is making life better for the people who are suffering from disease, the charity sector needs to explore every possibility for collaborating with Big Pharma.

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