Bill Maris (third from left) and Elli Kaplan (third from right) at Fortune's Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego Wednesday
Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortu
By Erika Fry
May 3, 2017

The race to cure, or even just treat, Alzheimer’s disease has been long and grueling. Between 2002 and 2012, 99.6% of drug candidates failed, and scientists continue to work furiously and fruitlessly to develop the same, still-elusive thing: a pill that can conquer the memory-robbing disease.

Achieving that holy grail feels as far away as ever, said Elli Kaplan, CEO and co-founder of Neurotrack, a digital health company that offers a cognitive assessment test to detect the early signs of decline. Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego on Wednesday, she suggested that it’s time to step back and think about the field’s approach to fighting the disease.

Kaplan pointed out that we actually know far more about the ways that lifestyle management can be used to fight Alzheimer’s (they’re low cost, too) than we do about the viability of various chemicals. She argued that we don’t give this information the public attention it deserves, and that broader awareness is needed about the roles exercise, diet, stress, and sleep management play in brain diseases.

Bill Maris, a founder of Google Ventures and now a venture capitalist who invests in life science companies, agreed with Kaplan that pills are not the future, and that the medical community currently over-prioritizes traditional drug development in looking for ways to treat little-understood brain diseases.

“These diseases will be cured, but not through small molecule drug development …ultimately, it’s going to be nanobots, viral vectors, regenerative medicine,” Maris said.

Just as critical as these emerging technologies, he added, is the basic science that will help us better understand the human mind. “We live in a world where we don’t even have a map of the brain,” Maris said, noting that the information he was taught in school about the organ and the geography of its function is now considered outdated.

Key to that basic research, of course, are well-funded scientists, who in the current ecosystem, often rely on the resource-stretched National Institute of Health. Maris argued we need to invest in them more. “Right now we’re expecting things from scientists that are unreasonable to expect.”


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