Dementia continues to be a major health issue around the world, impacting 420,000 people in Australia and 46.8 million people globally.
While there is currently no cure for the cognitive condition that impacts brain function and memory, human trials of a pioneering ultrasound technique that could delay the effects of dementia are set to begin in Brisbane next year.
Led by the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute (QBI), researchers will use the first phase of the trial involving a small number of patients to determine whether the ultrasound technique – which was first developed by the institute three years ago – is safe to use in the fight against dementia.
Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt announced $10 million in funding for the new project on Tuesday, bringing the University of Queensland closer to its goal of $30 million to commence clinical trials. The funding from the government and philanthropic donations will be used to help researchers accelerate the development of the technique and to better understand how the underlying mechanisms could be used to effectively treat dementia.
The technology works by temporarily opening the blood-brain-barrier to remove toxic plaques from the brain and has successfully reversed Alzheimer’s symptoms and restored memory function in animal models.
“The human safety trials late next year are the next step, representing an investment in research that is already underway,” QBI Director Pankaj Sah said in a statement. “Funding is essential if we are to continue to move closer to producing a non-invasive treatment for dementia, which affects more than 350,000 people nationwide.”
Experts predict that the number of Australians living with dementia could increase to 1.1 million by 2056 if there isn’t a major medical breakthrough. This would bring the cost of hospitalisation, care and loss of productivity to more than $1 trillion.
The goal of the latest trials is to produce a portable scanning ultrasound device that could be used across the country, including in regional clinic settings.
“The need for investment in research to develop new treatments and to improve dementia care is evident,” Hunt said in a statement. “We’re committed to ensuring Australians of all ages have access to the support they need to face life’s challenges.”
Meanwhile, the move has been praised by UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Peter Hoj, who said urgent action for dementia was critical.
“We are thrilled to see Federal and State governments partner with philanthropists and UQ to advance this important work,” Hoj said. “We must continue to build capacity in the dementia research sector by supporting students and early-career dementia researchers.”
The funding will support the 90-strong team of researchers at the Queensland’s Brain Institute’s Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research over the next five years.
Meanwhile, the government’s $10 million is part of a $185 million medical research package, focused on ageing, aged care and dementia. The package will also focus on fall prevention and avoidable hospitalisations, as well as assistive technology to support independence.