Billionaire Bill Gates has donated £23 million to encourage the development of new tests for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Microsoft co-founder has joined a coalition of philanthropists who are creating a venture fund called Diagnostics Accelerator, which aims to bring together industry and the public sector to seek treatments for the brain condition.
The effort, Gates said, was fuelled in part by his personal experience with family members struggling with Alzheimer’s. The most common form of dementia, the disease affects nearly 50 million people worldwide and is expected to rise to more than 131 million by 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International.
Funding provided through the initiative will be open to scientists and clinicians globally working in academic settings, charities and biotechnology companies.
Drugmakers have previously spent billions of pounds on scores of failed attempts to produce a treatment that can arrest the ravages of Alzheimer’s.
“We need a better way of diagnosing Alzheimer’s – like a simple blood test or eye exam – before we’re able to slow the progression of the disease,” Gates wrote in a statement announcing the investment.
“Imagine a world where diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease is as simple as getting your blood tested during your annual physical.”
Coincidentally, scientists announced a breakthrough in dementia diagnosis, with the discovery that people with thin retinas are more likely to develop the condition in later years.
Studies revealed that people with thin retinas were twice as likely to perform poorly in subtle tests on everyday memory, reaction time and reasoning. When tested again three years later, these people were also twice as likely to have suffered mental decline.
Gates says an accurate test is critical because Alzheimer’s can begin more than a decade before the first outward signs of decline – yet people are tested only when symptoms have progressed to the point at which the disease is affecting daily life.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive mental deterioration of the brain that destroys memory and thinking skills until the person is unable to do even the simplest of tasks.
Statistics show that a person develops dementia somewhere in the world every three seconds. There are now more than 50 million people living with dementia worldwide, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common form.
Alzheimer’s Society’s Dr Doug Brown said: “Today’s announcement is a very welcome boost to what we consider one the most fundamental questions of dementia – how to identify people with dementia better and earlier.”
Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “The ability to diagnose diseases like Alzheimer’s early and accurately remains one of the biggest challenges.”
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