Professor Bart De Strooper, the director of the UK’s new £250million Dementia Research Institute, said new treatments should be undergoing trials within five years – but said it could happen only if researchers changed the way they thought about the disease.
He added: “In the past we researchers have had too simplistic an approach to dementia.
“But what is emerging is that these brain diseases are highly complex with many processes, not just one. We need to make our research more nuanced.
“In five years’ time I would like to see half a dozen drugs in development and one or two being tested on patients.”
In the UK around 850,000 people suffer from dementia, costing some £26billion a year. The figures are also rising rapidly as the population ages.
Professor De Strooper is a former head of the laboratory for the research of neurodegenerative diseases at Leuven University, Belgium.
He was head-hunted to run the new institute after publishing a research paper last year which challenged the “amyloid hypothesis” that has dominated dementia research since the 1980s.
This is the idea that Alzheimer’s and many other dementias are triggered by the accumulation of two deformed proteins, amyloid and tau, which poison the brain.
As a result researchers have spent much of the last two decades trying to formulate drugs that remove the rogue proteins. But trials of several of these therapies have ultimately been deemed failures.
Professor De Strooper has said other approaches should now also be examined.
He added: “We know that these proteins are involved in Alzheimer’s and other dementias but they are only part of the picture.
“The evidence suggests that inflammation is another key factor in killing brain cells and we should be targeting that.”
John Davis, chief scientist at Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Oxford drug discovery unit, said at least 20 rogue genes were linked with an elevated dementia risk.
Some of those genes are…