As the Alzheimer's Association International Conference kicks off Saturday in Copenhagen, Denmark, one thing is clear: There is a tremendous public health need for Alzheimer's treatments, but efforts have stalled in the past few years as high-profile programs failed in their late stages.
More than five million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. Worldwide, 35.6 million people have either Alzheimer's or dementia, according to the World Health Organization. Those numbers are expected to triple by 2050.
Exactly what causes the disease is unknown, though it's clear that it's associated with a build-up of plaques in the brain.
Researchers at the conference will present data on where things stand against the disease.
"We've made a lot of progress over the past five to 10 years in a couple of areas," Maria Carrillo, the association's vice president of medical and scientific relations, said in a telephone interview Friday from Copenhagen, citing technology for early detection, understanding of risk factors, and—to some extent—therapeutics.
Despite recent setbacks, drugmakers are still working in the space, with 67 medicines currently in development, according to the industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. That's up from 22 in 2004. There are currently five medicines on the market for Alzheimer's, though they only target the symptoms, rather than the underlying cause of the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Biogen Idec, Roche/Genentech, Eli Lilly and Merck are among companies with the biggest pipeline focus on Alzheimer's. Their efforts mainly aim to clear or prevent plaques called amyloid beta from building up in the brain.
After programs from Lilly and Pfizer, J&J and Elan Pharmaceuticals failed in 2012, efforts have shifted to attempting to treat Alzheimer's earlier in the course of the disease.