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By Julie Steenhuysen
(Reuters) - The Obama administration's plan to fight Alzheimer's disease aims to harness the nation's expertise to find real treatments by 2025 and improve the care and treatment of the 5.1 million Americans already afflicted with the brain-wasting disease.
The draft plan, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday, makes treatment a top priority, but it also focuses on the burden the disease places on families and caregivers.
"Alzheimer's disease burdens an increasing number of our nation's elders and their families, and it is essential that we confront the challenge it poses to our public health," President Barack Obama said in a statement marking the plan's unveiling.
The White House earlier this month said it would divert an additional $50 million this year from HHS projects to Alzheimer's research, and seek an extra $80 million in new research funding in fiscal 2013.
"These investments will open new opportunities in Alzheimer's disease research and jumpstart efforts to reach the 2025 goal," HHS said in the draft document.
Obama also plans on an additional $26 million in spending on programs to support people who care for Alzheimer's patients.
Current drugs help manage symptoms but so far no therapy can stop the progression of Alzheimer's, which can start with vague memory loss and confusion before progressing to complete disability and death.
Some researchers have criticized the plan and its 2025 target, saying it is too ambitious given that researchers are still just beginning to understand the disease, which develops silently for 15 to 20 years before any memory problems begin to show.
The best hopes for a treatment at this stage lie with two drugs under development: one from Eli Lilly and another from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. But some experts worry these drugs are being tested in patients whose disease has already progressed too far for them to benefit from the treatments.
Experts predict that without effective drugs, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's will double by 2050 and related healthcare costs could soar to more than $1 trillion a year.
HHS is planning a scientific summit in May to set research priorities. It seeks to increase participation in Alzheimer's clinical trials, with a special focus on ensuring minority representation, and to shorten the time it takes to develop drugs.
Eric Hall, president and chief executive of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America and a member of the advisory council that has been working with HHS, said it addresses many of the concerns that have been expressed by the panel.
"Given the current economic environment that limits much-needed resources and the scientific unknowns of this disease, we believe that defeating Alzheimer's disease will likely happen in a series of small victories," Hall said in a statement.
He was especially pleased that the plan focuses on educating healthcare providers on how to detect early signs of cognitive impairment and linking newly diagnosed families with appropriate support services.
But George Vradenburg, chairman of USAgainstAlzheimer's and a member of the advisory panel, said the draft plan did not go far enough.
"This first draft fails to present a strategy aggressive enough to achieve the goal of preventing and treating Alzheimer's within 13 years," he said, noting that the plan lacks specific timelines and does not hold any high-level officials accountable for meeting the plan's goals.
The plan is open for public comment through the end of March.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Eric Walsh)