“It’s a terrible disease that devastates both those who have it and their loved ones,” the philanthropist wrote Monday on his blog. “This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s. I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you’re experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew. My family history isn’t the sole reason behind my interest in Alzheimer’s. But my personal experience has exposed me to how hopeless it feels when you or a loved one gets the disease.”
Gates noted that he, personally, is not without his own worries.
“Anything where my mind would deteriorate, I have to say I would be disappointed thinking about complex problems,” he told CNN. “I hope I can live a long time without those limitations.”
Alzheimer’s, said to be the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, affects more than 5 million Americans — a number expected to spike to as high as 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Although medication and other therapies may ease the symptoms, they do not slow the progression.
“We don't really have anything that stops Alzheimer’s, and so the growing burden is pretty unbelievable,” Gates said in an interview with CNN's chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been committed to global public health, including infectious diseases in developing countries, but as CNN reported, this is the first time Gates has focused on a solution for a noncommunicable disease.
In his blog post, titled “Why I'm Digging Deep Into Alzheimer’s,” the Microsoft co-founder said he became interested in the disease because of the emotional and economic toll it takes on victims and their loved ones, as well as the health-care system.
“A person with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia spends five times more every year out-of-pocket on health care than a senior without a neurodegenerative condition,” he wrote. “Unlike those with many chronic diseases, people with Alzheimer’s incur long-term care costs as well as direct medical expenses. If you get the disease in your 60s or 70s, you might require expensive care for decades.”
Through his investment, Gates said, he hopes to help make progress in better understanding the disease, detecting and diagnosing it sooner, and finding ways to keep it from progressing.
There are many ways an Alzheimer’s drug might help prevent or slow down the disease. Most drug trials to date have targeted amyloid and tau, two proteins that cause plaques and tangles in the brain. I hope those approaches succeed, but we need to back scientists with different, less mainstream ideas in case they don’t. A more diverse drug pipeline increases our odds of discovering a breakthrough.
He also wants to help make it easier to get patients into clinical trials:
The pace of innovation is partly determined by how quickly we can do clinical trials. Since we don’t yet have a good understanding of the disease or a reliable diagnostic, it’s difficult to find qualified people early enough in the disease’s progression willing to participate. It can sometimes take years to enroll enough patients. If we could develop a process to pre-qualify participants and create efficient registries, we could start new trials more quickly.
Asked how long he believes it will take to develop an effective treatment, Gates told Reuters: “It’ll take probably 10 years before new theories are tried enough times to give them a high chance of success. So it’s very hard to hazard a guess.”
“I hope that in the next 10 years that we have some powerful drugs,” he added, “but it’s possible that won’t be achieved.”
Although he told CNN a cure for Alzheimer’s is “probably setting a high bar,” it should be the long-term goal. For now, he said, “we probably should say 'treatment.' Any type of treatment would be a huge advance from where we are today. So, yes, I believe there is a solution.”
The Alzheimer's Association said Monday that it “applauds [Gates's] efforts to seek an end to Alzheimer's.”
“Gates has invested a great deal of time to better understand the full scope of the disease and how he can play a significant role in accelerating progress,” the nonprofit said in a statement. “The Alzheimer’s Association commends Bill Gates for digging in and joining the cause.”