Critics Call Government's Alzheimer's Plan Unrealistic

PHOTO: Music therapist Heather Davidson (R) embraces June Thorne after holding a drum circle with patients with Alzheimers disease at the Copper Ridge Care Center in Sykesville, Maryland, on October 23, 2009.PlaySaul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
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The Obama administration and the National Institutes of Health have homed in on Alzheimer's disease, setting an ambitious goal to have an effective treatment for the brain-wasting disease by 2025.

The plan is intended to give a "clear, national focus and attention on Alzheimer's that we've given to other diseases," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a meeting at the NIH Tuesday.

But Alzheimer's disease experts' reactions to the pledge are less optimistic: Some say giving more attention to the disease can only help, while others call the goal unrealistic.

Most say it is helpful to focus the nation's lens on Alzheimer's, which currently ravages the brains of about 5.4 million Americans and strains 15 million caregivers, numbers that will surely climb as the population ages.

But for some experts, the scope of the government's effort is only a fraction of what is needed to make a difference.

"It's great to have the attention drawn to the disease and have a temporary blip in funding," Dr. Samuel Gandy, a professor of Alzheimer's disease research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told ABC News. "But this is at least an order of magnitude off the figure that is likely to have meaningful impact."

The NIH devoted $448 million in fiscal year 2011 for Alzheimer's disease research, compared with the nearly $5.5 billion for cancer research and $3.1 billion for HIV/AIDS. So far, progress against Alzheimer's has been disappointing. There is no cure for the disease, and the treatments that are available only temporarily relieve its symptoms.

Much of the research so far has focused on amyloids in the brain, and whether targeting these protein tangles can prevent or reverse the disease. But answers have been tantalizingly out of reach, despite much research.

"We have had good reason to focus therapies on amyloid, yet they have failed to date. That is discouraging," Dr. Richard Caselli, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic, told ABC News. "So challenge No. 1 is finding good alternative targets."

Dr. Peter Whitehouse, a professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said if the government plan is to succeedl, the NIH should broaden its focus on research against Alzheimer's to include more that will help patients cope with the disease or prevent it altogether, such as community design, diet and exercise.

"The field of Alzheimer's research is getting a little distorted. There's a constant need to focus on magic bullets and single molecules," Whitehouse told ABC News. "It really requires a public health focus. The most effective interventions are not going to be drugs."

Other experts defend the government's efforts, saying the plan can only improve current efforts to fight the disease.

"No doubt it's an ambitious goal. What's different now is that we have a goal," said Harry Johns, president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer's Association.

Sebelius announced new steps in the government's strategy to develop treatments for the disease and provide better support to patients, families and caregivers in the next 13 years.

"This is a roadmap that will help us meet our goal to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer's disease by 2025," she said.

That roadmap includes millions in NIH funding devoted to research on Alzheimer's. Two trials will begin immediately -- $8 million for a clinical trial of a potential treatment for early Alzheimer's -- an insulin nose spray -- and $16 million to study the potential for a treatment to target amyloid, the brain hallmark of Alzheimer's disease, in Colombian people who are healthy but with a genetic mutation that puts them at high risk for developing the disease.

The initiative is part of the National Alzheimer's Plan Act, signed into law by President Obama in January, which marks $50 million for Alzheimer's research in fiscal year 2012 and another $100 million in fiscal year 2013.

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said the pledge would help researchers amp up current efforts to investigate the disease.

"We are at an exceptional moment scientifically for Alzheimer's with more revelations about the nature of this disease," Collins said in the meeting. "But this is not about just celebrating where we've come from, but rolling up our sleeves to see where we can go."

According to the Alzheimer's Association, caring for people with dementia cost $200 billion this year alone, and could reach $1 trillion by 2050. The disease is physically and mentally devastating, not just for patients but for families and caregivers who struggle to care for them.

To help embattled caregivers, the government launched, an online resource for patients, families and caregivers looking for information on dementia and where they can get help, and is assigning $26 million to provide resources for patients and caregivers, including support in local communities and a public awareness campaign with TV, radio, online and outdoor ads.

Sebelius said she hoped the government's effort would lead to a strikingly different picture of Alzheimer's disease in the U.S. by 2025.

Ambitious? Yes. But Caselli said that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Having a date gives everyone a more tangible sense of urgency, something to work towards, and again, that can only help," he said.