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Gates, Lauder Backing Early Alzheimer’s Biomarker Tests

Brain circuits


17 July 2018. A group of well-known philanthropists is backing a new research program to find simple tests that reveal early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease in a person’s molecular make-up. Funding for the initiative known as Diagnostics Accelerator is expected to reach $30 million, with initial contributions from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, former Estée Lauder chair Leonard Lauder, and other family foundations.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative condition affecting growing numbers of older people worldwide. People with Alzheimer’s disease often have deposits of abnormal substances in spaces between brain cells, known as amyloid-beta proteins, as well as misfolded tangles of proteins inside brain cells known as tau. Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, or ADDF, the group managing Diagnostics Accelerator, says some 44 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease or related forms of dementia.

Gates, in a blog post on his GatesNotes web site, says there’s an urgent need for better diagnostics for Alzheimer’s disease. Most current tests, says Gates, begin with cognitive tests that indicate symptoms like memory loss, which then must be confirmed with positron emission tomography or PET scans or a spinal tap. Gates points out two problems with this process. …

First, it can be expensive and invasive. Most insurance plans in the United States won’t reimburse tests for Alzheimer’s. Patients often pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, spinal taps can be scary and uncomfortable, and PET scans require the patient to stay perfectly still for up to 40 minutes. That’s difficult for anyone to do—but especially someone with Alzheimer’s.

Second, patients aren’t being tested for the disease until they start showing cognitive decline. The more we understand about Alzheimer’s, the clearer it becomes that the disease begins much earlier than we previously thought. Research suggests Alzheimer’s starts damaging the brain more than a decade before symptoms start showing.

As a result, Diagnostics Accelerator aims to find biomarkers — specific chemical indicators in the body — to detect early development of Alzheimer’s disease, and develop simple, non-invasive tests that identify the presence of these biomarkers before damage to the brain becomes extensive. ADDF says only 5 percent of people with Alzheimer’s symptoms are tested for known biomarkers of the disease. Testing for biomarkers provides not only earlier detection for Alzheimer’s, but it also improves the matching of individuals with the disease for appropriate clinical trials. ADDF notes that clinical trials selecting participants based on biomarkers across diseases are twice as likely to succeed as trials that do not use biomarkers for recruitment.

Howard Fillit, executive director and chief scientist of ADDF, says in a foundation statement, “Biomarkers can show whether someone is suffering from a disease, and also how the body responds to a treatment for that disease.” Fillit adds that, “using the biomarker specific model of precision medicine, we will be able to predict more accurately which treatment and prevention strategies will work in different at-risk populations of people who have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.”

Diagnostics Accelerator plans to use a venture philanthropy model for funding research on biomarkers that supports innovative discoveries, while not requiring guaranteed outcomes. In addition to Gates and Lauder, the program is supported by the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation and Dolby family fund. Diagnostics Accelerator expects to finance academic and industry researchers, although funds for biotechnology and other companies are likely to be dispensed as investments that require a return on those investments.

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