South Carolina should commit to moonshot against Alzheimer’s

South Carolina has the highest percentage of Alzheimer’s-related deaths in the nation, and projections estimate this trend will increase across the Palmetto State by 25 percent over the next decade. This calls on us to rethink our strategy.

On Oct. 25, I spoke before SCBIO’s annual conference in Charleston, highlighting that what’s missing is a moonshot — a collective commitment to plant a flag in the ground and adopt the Alzheimer’s fight as our own — as South Carolina’s.

When I was the dean of the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, I applied a distinct strategy in choosing exercise science as our lead research focus. I asked three questions. Is it an important problem? Is there funding? And, do we have a head start in the field?

After a fair investment, the Arnold School became the No. 1-ranked exercise science program in the nation. This example is not meant to equate with the Alzheimer’s crisis in scale or gravity, but simply to demonstrate that this proven strategy is relevant in helping to meet this important moment.

So, let’s ask ourselves those same three questions in relation to Alzheimer’s. First, is it an important problem? I probably don’t need to argue that Alzheimer’s is critically important, but recent facts serve to underscore the severity of the issue.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of Americans 65 and older diagnosed with Alzheimer’s rose from 4.7 million to 5.5 million over the last eight years, and is expected to increase 300 percent by mid-century. The resulting financial toll of the disease will cost the nation $277 billion this year, and projects to quadruple to over $1 trillion by 2050. Here in South Carolina, these societal challenges are at our doorstep, where, according to a recent RAND Corp. study, we are one of the five-worst equipped states to deal with the mounting Alzheimer’s crisis.

Second, is there funding? There are scores of funded research opportunities and private companies screaming to be first in line to crack this code. In addition, over the last three years alone, Congress has tripled the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) annual budget for Alzheimer’s and related dementias, to $1.9 billion. This recent spike of support begins to bridge long-standing funding gaps between Alzheimer’s and other major health issues, such as cancer and AIDS, which have research levels at $6 billion and $3 billion, respectively.


What’s missing is a moonshot — a collective commitment to plant a flag in the ground and adopt the Alzheimer’s fight as our own — as South Carolina’s.


Third, do we have a head start in the field? I believe we do, especially within our research universities. Our research faculty have the talent and expertise to address this challenge. Take, for example, the USC Arnold School’s Health Sciences Distinguished Professor Julius Fridriksson. His robust research portfolio stands at the cutting edge of unlocking the secrets of the brain. At the Medical University of South Carolina, leading brain researchers are attacking Alzheimer’s through a technique called Connectomics, which involves using neuroimaging to come up with a biomarker or biomarkers to predict someone’s risk for the disease. Collectively, these innovators not only represent shining examples of our research universities’ strength in the health sciences but South Carolina’s.

By affirmatively answering these three core questions, we are aptly positioned to declare our own moonshot. As a state, we can’t attack every disease and ailment, but we can commit to something that calls out to us, like Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Therefore, I ask all South Carolinians to call this fight our own. In the near term, let’s commit to making Alzheimer’s treatable with new drugs. In the longer term, let’s set our goal to reverse or prevent it. Let’s commit to achieving these goals by adopting the mindset, raising the funds, conducting the research, and crossing the finish line — right here in South Carolina.

After all, every realistic goal starts with a dream.

Originally posted in The Post and Courier.

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