Win $2 Million to Solve Alzheimer’s: New Prize Will Reward Fresh Ideas

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by the end of year two, says Perry, who is the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Further details are still being developed.

Both Perry and Truchard say that the idea is a bit unusual, but they argue their approach may bring better results. Researchers and drug companies have spent billions of dollars annually on Alzheimer’s R&D, with little to show for it in terms of new and effective drugs. But Perry and Truchard say that it could take an outsider to finally figure it out (of course, traditional researchers may be selected in the end). They want someone to analyze the composite of all Alzheimer’s knowledge—countless pages of published Alzheimer’s research, consideration of existing and potential therapies and treatments—to look for meaning where experts may have previously not. That might mean someone who is not a biologist—an engineer, a business consultant, a Swiss patent officer—could be the right fit.

“We want it to be open for anyone in the world, no matter what their education, if they can bring new ideas,” Perry says. “If you look at Einstein, he pulled together insights that were not obvious, and he was working at a patent office. We would like to have someone, who now works at the equivalent of the patent office, not be restricted because they don’t have exceptional academic credentials.”

If this bristles feathers in the research community, Perry isn’t worried. His degrees are in zoology and marine biology, but he’s spent most of his career researching Alzheimer’s disease, particularly the impact of oxidative damage in the brain. He has long questioned one area in Alzheimer’s research that has been the most studied: the so-called “amyloid hypothesis.”

Scientists have long theorized that the buildup of bits of protein in patients’ brains, specifically beta amyloid, may be the cause of the disease, and numerous drugs have been developed to attack and remove the protein. They’ve all failed in clinical tests. (Results from a Phase 2 trial of one drug still being developed were released in July, which were and remain controversial.) Perry has been publicly skeptical of the hypothesis dating as far back as 2000, when he says he published a paper in Nature (it’s now available on The Lancet) called “Amyloid-β junkies.” More people are now siding with him, believing the protein may be a symptom of the disease and not a cause.

While the project may still fund people examining amyloid, Perry says he and his team will want a more comprehensive look at other areas of Alzheimer’s being studied. That includes everything from the potential impact of infectious agents like microbes, viruses, or bacteria to whether environmental toxins from aluminum to copper may impact the development of Alzheimer’s, among others.

“All this complexity should be able to be reduced to something that’s simpler and easier to digest for the human mind, and therefore you’d be more likely to be able to develop therapeutics that can benefit families,” Perry says. “Everyone has been looking for a cure, to get a home run, when in fact, if we could just hit a single, if we could just delay the disease by five years, it would have a tremendous impact for people that are here now.”

Truchard says funding research like this keeps him engaged after his retirement. His research into the disease led him to discover Oskar Fischer, a Czech neuroscientist who was a contemporary of Alios Alzheimer, the man the disease is named for. Alzheimer is famous not only for lending his name to the disease, but for his early work in studying the protein plaques that clog the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Fischer did similar work at around the same time.

Truchard is naming this project after Fischer to recognize Fischer’s contribution to the field, which Truchard feels has been overshadowed by Alios Alzheimer’s work.

Perry says Truchard’s unique take on the problem will help the field.

“Jim has made a quantum leap,” Perry says. “He’s a bright person that comes completely from the outside, but has an engineering background, and [thinks] very different than the way biologists or most scientists think about most problems.”

An optimist, Truchard says, would believe the prize will lead to a definitive answer. A pessimist might say the work will take forever.

“You can take it from there,” Truchard says. “We hope to come up with really good answers.”

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