Scientists gathered this week in San Diego at the annual Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease Congress are focused on ways to treat the neurodegenerative disease, a task that continues to vex those working to develop potential medicines. Others are working on an intimately related problem: early detection of the disease and related dementias.
On Wednesday the New York-based Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) named six scientists who will receive a cut of $6 million to put toward their work developing diagnostic tools for the disease. The idea is to find a method that can more simply identify those with the disease—today we use brain imaging and spinal taps, in addition to cognitive assessments—as well as determine how far the condition has advanced. Such tools could make it easier to identify patients for clinical tests of potential treatments.
The awards come from a pot of nearly $50 million committed by a group of philanthropists led by ADDF co-founder Leonard Lauder and Bill Gates. The first set of awards put $10 million toward 10 projects. A second set, the six grants revealed Wednesday, are supporting diagnostic blood tests in various stages of development, including one of the most advanced, as well as a potential detection method using retinal imaging technology.
More than half the funds, about $3.2 million, were awarded to Henrik Zetterberg at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. According to the ADDF, Zetterberg and his lab are developing one of the most advanced blood tests for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The test, in collaboration with Roche, aims to measure fragments of certain protein that, in excess, form amyloid plaques, one of the hallmark pathological signs of the disease.
A grant of $1.2 million was awarded to Rodney Pearlman, president of the San Francisco-based Bluefield Project to Cure FTD. Pearlman and his team are evaluating blood levels of a protein in neurons called neurofilament light chain (NfL) that is released when those cells are injured. The organization is testing blood samples from people with an inherited form of frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) who aren’t yet showing symptoms.
Eliav Shaked, co-founder and CEO of medical imaging startup RetiSpec in Canada, was awarded $500,000 toward further development of a retinal hyperspectral imaging test that aims to identify the signs of Alzheimer’s disease years before symptoms appear by looking for changes in biomarkers associated with amyloid and other pathological signs of the disease.
Samuil Umansky, co-founder, chief scientific officer and president at DiamiR Biosciences in New Jersey, was awarded $492,000 to put toward a test measuring certain microRNAs, specific small molecules that it has identified as associated with neurodegeneration and inflammation.
UC San Diego’s Douglas Galasko was awarded $375,000. Galasko, working with scientists at ADx Neurosciences in Belgium, aims to develop a blood test that measures tau, the other pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, and NfL, at very low concentrations, with single molecule immunoassays.
A grant of $281,370 was awarded to Laura Ibanez at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MI, who is working on a project to measure blood levels of RNA present outside the cell, called cell-free RNA, associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests measuring cell-free nucleic acids are used today in so-called non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) and in cancer prognosis.
“Our goal is to accelerate the development of early and more accurate diagnostic tests, as well as tests that can accelerate and improve the rigor of clinical drug development,” said Howard Fillit, ADDF’s founding executive director and chief science officer, in a prepared statement. “Ultimately, these tests will represent the beginning of precision medicine for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.”
The ADDF initiative, which the organization calls its Diagnostics Accelerator, launched in July 2018 with nearly $35 million committed from ADDF co-founder Leonard Lauder, Bill Gates, the Dolby family, and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Additional funds have since been committed by the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, and other philanthropists.
The organization plans to give a third set of funding awards in the first quarter of 2020, to researchers developing digital diagnostic tools.