Learning from Medical Breakthroughs to Improve Treatment for Dementia

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The past few decades have seen a number of medical breakthroughs that enabled the effective treatment of a range of conditions, transforming them from fatal into manageable ones. Examples include certain cancers and HIV.

Conversely, progress on dementia has been limited. There are currently no treatments that will cure or even alter the progressive course of dementia, despite ongoing research investigating new therapies and care options.

The UK Department of Health was interested in the potential to learn from other disease areas to better understand the particular social, economic, political, legislative and scientific contexts that have contributed to accelerating progress and breakthroughs in treatment. Such learning could helpfully inform dementia research and innovation efforts, and help identify levers for supportive policy development.


This project analysed breakthroughs in the treatment of four selected conditions of ill health and sought to identify potentially transferable lessons for the dementia context:

  • Breast cancer
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

Using evidence review and key informant interviews we sought, for each of these, to:

  • identify the series of ‘events’ that eventually led to a given breakthrough, and the key milestones in the process that have helped improve understanding and potential for treatment
  • capture the temporal and causal relationships between ‘notable’ events looking at a variety of factors implicated in the breakthrough pathway

Our focus was on political; economic; social; scientific and technological; legal, regulatory and environmental factors.


Our case studies identified four overarching and interdependent factors which enabled breakthroughs in treatment of other conditions:

  • A commitment to tackling the science associated with a disease
  • An active and committed advocacy community
  • A flexible and responsive regulatory environment
  • A coordinated strategic response and collaboration across sectors

In addition, the study identifies three key ‘action areas’ and raises issues for policy dialogue and reflection. These relate to:

  • Overcoming the science bottleneck and barriers to translation (e.g. the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, funding across the research and innovation value chain, the competitive landscape)
  • Creating a strong and sustainable advocacy movement (e.g. the role of individuals, institutions and social media)
  • Paving the way for conducive regulation (e.g. the feasibility of patent pools, open access and accelerated approval prospects)


Project Team

Jirka Taylor
Sonja Marjanovic
Ellen Nolte
Alexandra Pollitt
Jennifer Rubin

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