Four years ago, Bill Gates led a project in which he and a few other billionairesincluding Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott, pledged thirty million dollars to create a new engine within an Alzheimer’s foundation in order to speed up the development of tests that could diagnose the disease. That funding was later increased to $50 million.
Now, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation has announced a $50 million new funding commitment from previous donors, like Gates, Bezos, the former president of Estee Lauder, Leonard Lauder (founder of the foundation with his brother Ronald); and the family of the late Ray Dolby, as well as some new donors, money that will support the next phase of their efforts to improve Alzheimer’s screening. Donations to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation are “venture philanthropy.” Any financial returns the investments receive will go back into the foundation, rather than into the pockets of donors.
Gates, Bezos and Lauder now donate $11.25 million each for the foundation’s diagnostic project, while Dolby Family Ventures contributes five million of dollars. The four new donors joining them in supporting diagnostic research are pharmaceutical companies biogene (which donates five million dollars) and Eli Lilly & Co. (which donates one million dollars), the NFL Players Association and the Shanahan Family Charitable Foundationwhich donates $5 million and is linked to former Capital Group executive R. Michael Shanahan, who, according to his obituary, died in 2020 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Bill Gates’ donation is also personal. In January 2018, he revealed on the show Today that his then 92-year-old father, Bill Gates Sr., suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Bill Gates Sr. died in 2020 at the age of 94.
The difficult diagnosis of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s has been difficult to diagnose. As Gates explained in a post on Blog in 2018, neither of the two most common methods – a lumbar puncture or a PET scan – are ideal. A lumbar puncture is invasive and can be uncomfortable, and a PET scan requires patients to lie very still for up to forty minutes, which is not easy to do.
The aim of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation is to have non-invasive tests –such as an eye scan or blood test– that can make an early diagnosis of the disease. Some are already in development, and last week a foundation-backed company, Quanterix, announced a new research blood test.
«The role of our philanthropy is to take risks“says Dr. Howard Fillit, co-founder and chief scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. «The initial capital we provide is vitally important«. Fillit describes the work the foundation does as funding “the valley of death,” that is, helping to drive promising academic research into preclinical trials, research that is often considered too risky by many venture capitalists and by big pharma.
Niranjan Bose, managing director of life and health sciences at Bill Gates’ investment firm, Gates Ventures, explains that with the foundation’s first $50 million diagnostic fund in 2018, “we started to seed the countryside [del diagnóstico] with investments.” Now, some of those investments have advanced to the point of needing more financing and, in some cases, larger checks of two to three million dollars. So Gates and others are doubling down on their donations now, says Bose, “so that those sprouts keep growing.”
fillitwhich also carries forty years treating patients with Alzheimer’s, is overjoyed at the progress made so far. When she started working as a doctor, the only way to diagnose Alzheimer’s was with a brain biopsy (after the patient had died). “Now I can send a patient for a brain scan called Amyvid» which is approved by the FDA, he says. That scanner, she adds, can tell you with 90% certainty if a patient has the disease. The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation funded Amyvid, initially developed by Avid Radiopharmaceuticals and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania; It is now owned by Eli Lily & Co.
It’s an exciting time for Alzheimer’s researchers. There are more than 120 drugs in clinical trial phase all over the world; thirty of them have received funding from the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. Over the past four years, the foundation’s diagnostic accelerator has invested some $50 million in more than 40 global research projects that include blood tests, eye scans, and early digital technology.
A company called RetiSpec, supported in part by the foundation, is developing a retinal test that detects neurodegenerative changes. “The eye is the window to the brain,” explains Fillit, who imagines a scenario in which you can go to the eye exam once a year and additional images are made that could detect Alzheimer’s disease in a less invasive way than tests current.
Gates Ventures’ Bose also welcomes the possibility of performing an eye test to diagnose Alzheimer’s, since it could detect the disease earlier. “Before you start to see amyloid [proteínas relacionadas con el Alzheimer] in the blood, you start to see in the back of the retina,” says Bose, who estimates that they could happen one or two years before the retinal test is ready. Other companies are also trying to do optical diagnostic tests.
For anyone interested in how to avoid Alzheimer’s, given the current lack of easy diagnosis and the absence of drugs to stop the disease, Fillit says much has been learned about prevention. “The basic premise is that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain«, he explains, and points out that we must do exercise regularly, follow a Mediterranean diet, avoid tobacco, alcohol and stressY get enough sleep. The place Web of the foundation contains information on prevention, as well as reviews of foods and supplements and articles on brain health.
There is still much to learn about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Fillit claims that the research on this disease is perhaps fifty years behind what we know about cancer. One challenge: It’s difficult and expensive to enroll patients in phase three clinical trials for new Alzheimer’s treatments. But better diagnostics could make that process more efficient and much less expensive, Fillit says. And better diagnosis would allow patients to be enrolled in trials at an earlier stage of the disease.
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