One should be cheering the news that Great Britain will double funding for Alzheimer’s and dementia research. But there’s something odd about the way it’s being presented, at least to my eyes. Here’s a story from the Guardian that might illustrate what I mean:
The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he hoped the dementia summit would have the same effect as the G8 summit in Gleneagles on HIV/Aids in 2005.
“Today should be an optimistic day,” he told BBC Breakfast. “Tony Blair had the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 on HIV/Aids and actually that did turn out in retrospect to be a turning point in the battle against Aids.
“I think if you bring the world’s leaders together, health ministers from across the world, and we are all resolved that we really are going to do something about this as we face up to an ageing society.”
If 2005 was some sort of widely-recognized turning point in HIV control, I must have missed it. I’ll be glad to be corrected, but the last sentence in that quote makes me wonder, because it isn’t a sentence. Try it out: the first part isn’t connected with the second. He thinks that if you bring the world’s leaders together, then. . .what will happen? “If” implies some sort of resolution in a sentence, and there isn’t any. How about the second part? They’re all resolved that they’re really going to do something – fine, but isn’t that the easiest part? The simplest part? I mean, coming out and saying that you’d like to “do something” about a problem that everyone would like to see solved is not that big a step, is it?
Well, doubling research funding is certainly doing something, there’s no taking away from that. Much is made in the various press articles about Lilly’s Alzheimer’s scan, which Britain’s National Heath Service is going to make available to some patients. Now, Lilly has been talking bravely about Alzheimer’s for some time now, and to be fair to them, they’ve been spending pretty bravely, too. No doubt their hope has been that their imaging agent would match up with some successful therapy they’d develop, but the “successful therapy” part has been the hard one.
But British Prime Minister David Cameron has also been talking about finding a cure by 2025. I hope we do – I may need it by then – but it’s going to take a generous slug of luck for that to happen. I don’t hold out much hope for anything currently in development as a cure, although I’d like to be wrong about that. And something that’s not in development would barely make it through, on an optimistic timetable, by 2025. We certainly don’t know enough about Alzheimer’s to say that we’re on track, so someone will have to get lucky. You wouldn’t know that from the British newspapers, though. They’ve also been excited about the potential of Eli Lilly’s solanezumab, which must make the UK the only area outside of Indianapolis where that state of mind obtains.
That’s the part that worries me about the public statements in this area. Politicians (and CEOs) are prone to ringing declarations that make it sound as if all that’s really needed is gumption and willpower – good faith will carry the day. But that just isn’t true in research. It really isn’t. Nerve and perseverance are necessary, and how, but they’re nowhere near sufficient. To pretend otherwise is to engage in magical thinking, and the history of Big Proclamations in the biomedical field should be enough to prove that to anyone.
Back in 2003, we were supposedly going to eliminate death and suffering from cancer by 2015 (and Senator Arlen Spector asked if maybe we couldn’t move the timetable up to 2010). On a lesser level, back in 2009, there were statements that a cure for the common cold was at hand. Sorry about that. The British press has a particular weakness for proclaimed Alzheimer’s cures, not that the US press doesn’t go for them, too.
No, saying it will not make it so. I don’t know how to make it so, other than by spending a lot of money and a lot of time, and working really hard, and hoping for the best. But that’s not the stuff of headlines.