An effective dementia drug may only be a decade away

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It's not often you get to hear a ministerial briefing up close and personal.

But that's the privilege I had yesterday at Eli Lilly's research labs in Surrey, where Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was getting a briefing on Lill's research on potential new treatments for dementia and the research that is going on in the lab.

Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt at a research lab in Surrey
Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt at a research lab in Surrey Credit: ITV News

He heard that Lilly's approach has been to design a chemical - more or less from scratch - that gets in the way of the formation of amyloid plaques - the clumps that are typically found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's.

Scientists theorise that the disruption these plaques causes in the brain might lead to dementia.

Lilly have carried out trials on a drug called Solanezumab that stops the plaques forming.

The trials had mixed results but they're about to start a new trial on patients with mild dementia that they hope will be more positive.

Scientists in the laboratory in Surrey
Scientists in the laboratory in Surrey Credit: ITV News

I watched fascinated as Hunt questioned Lilly scientists and asked the question that I, as a journalist would have asked: "How long do you think it will be before patients can take a drug that helps them?"

Lawrence McGinty with Jeremy Hunt and team of dementia researchers
Lawrence McGinty with Jeremy Hunt and team of dementia researchers Credit: ITV News

Of course, scientists hate that question and never give a straight answer (because it's impossible to guess).

The answer he got was that, for the first time, it was looking as if the "amyloid hypothesis" was turning out to be at least part of the answer, and that, for the first time, trials could settle that question.

Then it was my turn to question Mr Hunt, and I was impressed that he turned the answer he'd been given a few minutes before into a statement that might make today's headlines - namely that it was looking as if there might well be a drug that could help patients with Alzheimer's within the timescale of a decade or so.

Here's what he told me.