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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Bounds

Occuity Invited to Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission Event at No.10

Updated: Mar 22

Yesterday, I had the honour of attending Number 10 Downing Street as part of the Dame Barbara Windsor Dementia Mission. As part of the Mission, Occuity has been awarded a research contract from the Innovate UK Small Business Research Initiative to develop new technologies to detect biomarkers of Alzheimer’s Disease in the eye.

Dementia is one of the most common conditions in the world, affecting one in fourteen people over the age of 65. It is also one of the most expensive, and one of the most feared, with a devastating impact on people’s lives. By 2030, half of people will have experienced dementia, either as a patient or as a carer for a family member with dementia.

At Occuity, we are developing optical solutions to some of humanity’s greatest healthcare challenges, by using the eye as a window to the health of the body. One focus is the lens of the eye, which acts as a molecular history, allowing us to track the build-up of waste products like advanced glycation end-products, relevant to diabetes.

With the SBRI research contract, we will advance on our existing technologies, adapting our instruments to target Alzheimer’s disease by looking for amyloid beta in the lens of the eye in conjunction with fluorescent eye drops. This project works with the University of Reading and Singular Photonics, a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh.

One of the most challenging discussions I often have is whether it actually helps to detect dementia early. Drug options are limited, as is the effectiveness and availability of the drugs currently available, which can create a sense of “what’s the point in knowing if you can’t do anything about it.” Until yesterday, I found this a very difficult hurdle to overcome, but the charities and patient groups that I met at 10 Downing Street couldn’t have made it more clear that this is not the case.

The level of support available before and after diagnosis is worlds apart, but the diagnosis process can often take well over a year during which a battery of tests are performed such as MRI scans, spinal taps and mental ability tests. During this time, patients and their families are scared and often unsupported, knowing that something is wrong but not knowing what that something is. One charity told me that about 60% of new people approaching them were 'pre-diagnosis', and another charity described patients being told that they could not even join the waiting list for a diagnostic investigation until the waiting list had gone down. After diagnosis, anticipatory care and care pathways can be put in place, to help people manage symptoms and avoid ending up in crisis, but these are only possible after a diagnosis is given.

There is also intense activity going into therapeutics. There are already drugs available on the market for Alzheimer’s disease, with over a hundred more in trials, but recruiting to trials is intensely challenging, in part because of the timescales of diagnosis. Earlier, easier diagnostics could transform recruitment for therapeutic trials, accelerating the emergence of new treatments to delay and possibly even prevent many forms of dementia.

Alongside the opportunity to meet with charities, I was able to chat to several other SBRI contract winners who were also in attendance, drawing on a broad range of biomarker targets from blood, artificial intelligence, infrared light and MRI scans. In some ways these companies are competitors, but ultimately, there are so many forms of dementia, so many stages in the clinical pathway, and so many different biomarkers that these companies are rarely operating in the same space. Instead, the growing emphasis on diagnostics and biomarker detection makes it easier to identify translational pathways into care, research, and impact and builds awareness of the urgent need for better diagnostics.

This is reflected in the massive increase in resources going into dementia research. The government has committed to doubling dementia research funding to £160M in 2024-2025, including more than £6M split across 10 SBRI research contracts and nearly £50 million funding to support further work on clinical trials through the NIHR. Industry and philanthropic funding is also rising, with industry and philanthropy leaders in attendance at Number 10, building bridges across the dementia landscape and connecting politicians, civil servants, scientists, clinicians, industrialists, charities and patients.

This collaborative approach, bringing together a broad range of stakeholders and expertise, is key to effectively fighting dementia, and ensures that this SBRI contract isn’t ‘just another grant.’

Dementia isn’t going away. But neither is the fight.

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