Analysis: A fast track for Alzheimer's?

By ED SUSMAN, UPI Medical Correspondent  |  May 14, 2007 at 5:56 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) -- By the year 2010 -- less than three years from now -- the annual cost to treat patients in the United States with Alzheimer's disease will reach $160 billion, researchers said Monday in Washington.

But they said scientific discoveries to slow the disease could save society $1.2 trillion to $3.97 trillion a year by 2050.

In a news briefing at the National Press Club, researchers from a coalition of not-for-profit organizations called Accelerate Cure and Treatments for Alzheimer's Disease described the current "epidemic" of the progressively debilitating and memory-robbing disease that affects about 5.1 million Americans.

"Our goal here today is to raise enough awareness of how critical Alzheimer's disease is to patients, caregivers and its incredible expense to society (to persuade) the Food and Drug Administration to offer these drugs the same accelerated priority approval status that has been given to drugs that treat the human immunodeficiency virus" -- HIV -- "which causes AIDS, and for treatment of breast cancer and prostate cancer," said Daniel Perry, executive director of ACT-AD.

He noted that for HIV in particular the accelerated approval process has been a major factor in turning AIDS from a rapidly fatal disease to one that can be controlled as a chronic disease.

"The mounting economic evidence that Alzheimer's disease could bankrupt our healthcare system, plus the promise posed by a number of new drugs in the pipelines for Alzheimer's disease, makes today the time to change," explained Robert Goldberg, vice president for the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and co-author of a new study on the disease's economic impact.

"Our ability to make medicine more predictive, preventive and personalized also means that individuals will find medicine more valuable, even if insurers or health systems do not," he said.

Yet, support for research on new, more effective treatments is mired in politics.

"In the current political environment, we often focus myopically on cost containment at the exclusion of everything else," said John Vernon, professor of finance at the University of Connecticut School of Business, and a faculty research fellow with The National Bureau of Economic Research.

"Our calculations, while preliminary, suggest it is more important than ever to understand the full economic value associated with new treatments for Alzheimer's, as for any other devastating disease," Vernon told United Press International.

In his report, "Alzheimer's Disease and Cost-effectiveness Analyses: Ensuring Good Value for Money?", submitted for publication by the NBER, Vernon suggests that a treatment for Alzheimer's disease that could delay the onset of the major symptom of the illness -- memory loss that affects activities of daily living -- for five years would be worth nearly $4 trillion a year.

Moreover, if a treatment could be found that would only delay the disease for one year, it still would be worth $1.2 trillion each year, Vernon said. His calculations are based on determining dollar values for productivity, longevity and quality of life.

The Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association estimates:

-- 5.1 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's, including 4.9 million people age 65 and older.

-- At least 500,000 Americans younger than 65 are living with "early-onset" Alzheimer's or other dementia.

-- By 2050, the number of individuals in this country 65 and older with Alzheimer's could range from 11 million to 16 million, without new and more effective therapies.

-- Medicare costs alone for beneficiaries with Alzheimer's will reach $160 billion in 2010.

-- In addition to these Medicare costs, one in four caregivers of people with Alzheimer's spend an average of 40 hours per week, and more than 71 percent maintain this commitment for more than a year, resulting in significant loss in earnings productivity.

-- Families who hire in-home caregivers face annual costs of up to $200,000, while families that decide to provide care themselves spend as many as 70 hours a week, severely compromising their own earning potential and costing employers an estimated $61 billion annually in lost productivity.

ACT-AD's Perry told UPI that 120 drug candidates designed to change the course of disease, not just relieve symptoms, are in the pharmaceutical pipeline. "We expect that some of these drugs will be available by the end of the decade," he said.

"We need drugs that can do this for Alzheimer's disease," said former TV personality Meryl Comer, who gave up her professional career to become the caregiver for her physician husband now in his 12th year of Alzheimer's disease.

"Alzheimer's disease is an untreated epidemic," she said, "and even the new figures announced today, I think, are really conservative."

University of Connecticut's Vernon estimated the cost of Alzheimer's disease on the basis of a quality adjusted life year, or QALY, being worth $175,000. The old standard of $50,000 devised for treatment of kidney dialysis is 30 years old and is obsolete and does not apply to Alzheimer's, he said.

Among the members of the coalition are the Alliance for Aging Research, the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, American Society on Aging, National Alliance for Caregiving, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, National Consumers League, Research!America and the Society for Women's Health Research. Funding comes from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Elan Corp. and Myriad Genetics.

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