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June 2012: Lunch debate on Alzheimer's disease in the new European public health and research programmes

Alliance activities

Liam Aylward, MEP (Ireland) hosted Alzheimer Europe’s 13th lunch debate in the European Parliament on behalf of Brian Crowley, MEP (Ireland).  Entitled “Alzheimer’s disease in the new European public health and research programmes”, the debate highlighted how EU programmes are being used to address the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, the debate revealed that the priorities in the new health programme will change.  This event was well supported by the attendance of fifty-five people, including 12 MEPs, nine of which are members of the European Alzheimer’s Alliance.

Opening the meeting, Mr Aylward highlighted the tremendous challenge which Alzheimer’s disease presents: one person in every 20 over the age of 65 is affected by the disease, seven million people in Europe have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia with some 21 million people looking after people with dementia in Europe.  It is forecast to dramatically increase in the next decades and globally it is estimated that there will be 4.6 million new cases of dementia each year, with one new case every seven seconds.  The impact on health and social services is already huge and the need for timely and effective actions is paramount.

Mr Aylward said that the EU programmes do have the potential to make a big difference in the direction, treatment and lives of sufferers, carers and families and welcomed the presenters from the European Commission: Philippe Cupers, Head of Neurosciences Sector, Medical Research, DG Research and Innovation, and Jürgen Scheftlein, Policy Officer, Mental Health Unit, DG Health and Consumers.

Philippe Cupers also emphasised the importance that dementia has, affecting every family in Europe with a societal cost of EUR 72 billion which is expected to rise to EUR 144 billion in 2040 if no action is taken. 

Mr Cupers showed that since 2007, Alzheimer’s disease has been an EU research priority with more than EUR 115 million being allocated to support research in this area. The Commission expects the final figure to be nearer to EUR 150 million by 2014.  Whilst the supported research has been carried out in different areas, all share the aim of helping us to better understand the disease. Specific examples of projects include:

  • “Memoload” (Neurobiological Mechanisms of Memory Loss in Alzheimer’s  Disease). “LUPAS” (Luminescent polymers for in vivo imaging of amyloid signatures) which aims to develop novel agents and methods for diagnostic, prevention of protein aggregation and treatment of Alzheimer’s and prion diseases.
  • “PharmaCog” (Prediction of cognitive properties of new drug candidates for neurodegenerative disease in early clinical development). This project focuseson the bottlenecks in drug development. It aims to provide new methodologies to make the process more efficient and result in better information on the development of the disease.
  • “Chances” (Consortium on Health and Ageing: Network of Cohorts in Europe and the United States). This aims to produce evidence on ageing-related health characteristics and their social-economic implications.

In addition, the JPND (Joint Programming Initiative on Neurodegenerative disease, in particular Alzheimer’s disease) is an initiative driven by Member States and enabling them to coordinate their research in this area.

Future opportunities for research exist with the last call of FP7 and with Horizon 2020. The last calls for FP7, including for the "Health" theme, have been published on 10 July 2012. The health theme includes 5 specific topics for brain research, including the development of effective imaging tools for mental disorders where Alzheimer’s disease can be addressed.

After the FP7, the next European research programme “Horizon 2020” (2014-2020) will be launched which has a substantial Commission-proposed budget of EUR 80 billion.  There are three main pillars: Industrial leadership, excellent science and societal challenges. Mr Cupers explained that Alzheimer’s research falls in each pillar and in particular within the societal challenges under the “Health demographic change and well-being” which has been allocated around EUR 8.5 billion. He listed the priorities for health research as

  • Understanding the determinants of health, improving health promotion and disease prevention
  • Developing effective screening programmes and improving the assessment of disease susceptibility
  • Understanding disease
  • Developing better preventive vaccines
  • Improving diagnosis
  • Using in-silico medicine for improving disease management and prediction and
  • Treating diseases.
  • Transferring knowledge to clinical practice and scalable innovation actions
  • Better use of health data
  • Improving scientific tools and methods to support policy making and regulatory needs
  • Promoting integrated care and
  • Optimising the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare systems and reducing inequalities.

Mr Cupers also highlighted the ‘Month of the Brain’ initiative planned for May 2013.  The aim of this is to raise awareness of the achievements which were carried out as part of FP7 as well as identify what future work should be done.

Jürgen Scheftlein presented other future work which includes Alzheimer’s disease. He highlighted the fact that currently there are only a few things which we can do to address this disease (investing in early diagnosis, improving quality of life, training carers and supporting family members).  Whilst recognising these are all challenges in themselves, Mr Scheftlein highlighted the positive elements of the current environment:

  • A high quality of commitment now exists.  The French President gave his personal commitment to address this disease a few years ago, putting Alzheimer’s disease onto the policy agenda. This has had a long-lasting impact. Mr Scheftlein also noted that the lunch debate itself was well-attended, again showing a high quality of commitment.
  • 2012 is the European Year of Active and Healthy Ageing.
  • There exists stable cooperation between several European Commission bodies (DG Research, Education, Information and Society and Sanco) and this is not always the case
  • Industry is very active in the development of new drugs to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and
  • Alzheimer Europe is a strong NGO which can assist other actors.

Mr Scheftlein said that research includes the exchange of knowledge and best practice and that the latter is a key area which is being focused on.  In 2009 the Commission adopted a more strategic approach with the introduction of Joint Actions and Joint Programming. Currently the Joint Action on dementia, ALCOVE (Alzheimer Cooperative Valuation in Europe) is at a half-way point and areas of work include data on prevalence and data on diagnosis. Another focus area in ALCOVE is to improve the rights of people with dementia. 

In the meantime, discussions had started within Europe 2020 and the need to focus on innovation and active and healthy ageing.  One outcome was the development of the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing (EIP AHA) which has now taken off and resulted in a strategic implementation plan by the Commission. All stakeholders have been invited to join this partnership and to indicate what they can do themselves to promote active and healthy ageing to work towards the target of two healthy added years. Some 260 commitments have been made.  Most partners involved are from the Netherlands and the UK and the most commitments concern diagnosis and cognitive decline.  The actors involved in this initiative are diverse and it illustrates that the EIP AHA reaches a wide audience and not only the health sectors. 

Mr Scheftlein explained that whilst there are a lot of similarities between “Health for Growth”, the next European health framework programme and “Horizon 2020”, there are also differences.  In particular, he highlighted the financial difference between the two, with “Health for Growth” being a much smaller programme.  Therefore the Commission has decided that if it wants to make the best value from the “Health for Growth” programme, it needs to strengthen the focus on: 1. Innovative and sustainable health systems. 2. Increasing access to better and safe health care for citizens. 3. The prevention of disease and the promotion of good health, including active and healthy ageing (AHA). 4. The protection of citizens from cross border health threats.  At the moment the Health for Growth programme is being considered by the European Parliament.

Delegates learned that there will be a significant shift with the next health programme. In future there will be less invitations for project activities and Joint Actions will be more common. Alzheimer’s disease will not remain on the health policy agenda as a priority in its own right, but as a challenge integrated into horizontal activities. 

Activities which have emerged in the last two years are the AHA initiatives, the building of responsive sustainable health systems and activities on chronic disorders. Mr Scheftlein assured participants that there will still be a strong element of Alzheimer’s disease and that the results from the Joint Actions and research programmes will feed into the implementation of new initiatives.

Heike von Lützau-Hohlbein, Chairperson of Alzheimer Europe and also of the German Alzheimer Association, commented that she found it a shame that the Commission appears to be moving away from the problems of dementia and with daily living and social aspects of the disease.  Jürgen Scheftlein said that the public health purse is limited, as are the resources of the Commission and it was decided it would be more effective to strengthen the focus of its activities and to look at cross-cutting issues rather than specifically at each disorder.  For example, the issue of mobility will be addressed in different programmes.

Charles Scerri, General Secretary, Malta Dementia Society and Board Member of Alzheimer Europe, asked how the results from the programmes reach people with dementia and carers. Philippe Cupers explained that when the Commission supports a project it first establishes an agreement which includes a provision that materials be produced for public access to any citizen in Europe.

Ms von Lützau-Hohlbein thanked everyone for their participation, in particular acknowledging the support of the Members of the European Alzheimer’s Alliance. She asked that the Council and European Commission be vigilant to the on-going discussions in the area of chronic diseases, neurodegenerative diseases and ageing.  She also called for a good balance to be made between basic research and social and care research to help people with dementia and their carers.

Mr Aylward closed the debate, thanking the speakers for sharing their expertise and saying, “hopefully sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and their families and carers’ problems will be put on a higher plane at European level.”

 

 
 

Last Updated: Tuesday 19 February 2013

 

 
 

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