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Greying US boosts Alzheimer’s research outlays

The Obama administration announced today that it will devote US$80 million in new money to research on Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. It also redirected an additional $50 million in the 2012 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help unravel the disease.  The investment represents a considerable increase on the biomedical agency’s current Alzheimer’s research outlay of about $450 million.

Speaking at an event at the National Press Club in Washington DC, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the boost in funding “reflects this administration’s commitment to confronting Alzheimer’s, a disease that takes a devastating toll on millions of Americans”. With the Baby Boomers ageing at a rapid rate and the economic burden of the disease growing apace, “we can’t afford to wait”, Sebelius said.

Francis Collins, NIH director, called projections that the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s may more than double — to more than ten million people — by 2050 “simply staggering”.  He described promising areas in Alzheimer’s research, such as this paper in Nature last month demonstrating how induced pluripotent stem cells can be used to model the disease. They provide a new tool to help understand its pathology, as well as making high-throughput screening to identify potential drug treatments eminently possible.

Collins said that, of the additional $50 million that the agency will put into the disease this year, $25 million will be used to sequence the genomes and exomes of people afflicted with Alzheimer’s and of unaffected individuals, to identify both risk factors and protective genetic variants. The work will be done by sequencing centres funded by the agency’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

Richard Hodes, director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, which spends about 70% of the NIH’s Alzheimer’s dollars, says that the remaining $25 million will be spent on already-peer-reviewed projects that may not otherwise have been funded but that represent excellent scientific opportunities. The directors of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centres will submit project ideas and then collectively judge which ones are most meritorious and should be funded. All of this must happen in the remaining 7.5 months of the government’s 2012 fiscal year.

How the new $80 million in 2013 will be spent remains “undetermined”, Hodes says. Nor is it clear whether Congress will agree to appropriate $80 million additional dollars in the as-yet-unwritten bill that will fund the biomedical agency in 2013, or whether the agency will instead be obligated to cut existing programmes to finance the new Alzheimer’s work. That already needs to happen in order to see this year’s $50 million redirected, he admitted. “If there’s a finite budget anywhere, once there’s more of something, there is less of something else.”

Asked whether the NIH should be required to submit to the central direction typified by today’s announcement, rather than letting investigator-initiated science takes it course, Hodes said, in general, no. But, he added, the public-health imperative presented by the collision of an ageing population with a devastating, age-related and untreatable disease, called for “extraordinary” action in an “exceptional context”.

The US government is already coordinating Alzheimer’s research centrally through an advisory council mandated by a 2011 law, the National Alzheimer’s Research Project Act. (See this recent Nature News Q&A with Ronald Petersen, the chairman of the Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Research, Care and Services.)

The National Institute on Aging is preparing to convene an international conference that will address Alzheimer’s strategies going forward. The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Summit will take place on 14–15 May 2012.



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