Bill Gates pledges $50M for Alzheimer’s disease fund

Funds will be used to recruit a CEO and help broaden the DDF's focus.

Billionaire Bill Gates turns his philanthropic eye toward Alzheimer’s disease with a $50 million investment in the U.K.-based Dementia Discovery Fund.

The two-year-old DDF—which is run by venture capital firm SV Health and backed by several big biopharma companies and medical charity Alzheimer’s Research U.K.—is focused on backing groups that discover and develop disease-modifying drugs for Alzheimer’s, which despite decades of research can still only be treated with a handful of drugs with limited efficacy.

It’s the first time Gates, one of the richest men in the world, has used his financial punch to take the fight to dementia, and the additional funding will allow the DDF to back more companies and recruit additional personnel—including a chief executive to lead the fund and direct the efforts of its scientific advisory board, drawn mainly from industry.

Gates is dipping into his own pocket to back the DDF, keeping the investment separate from the $40 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is mainly devoted to diseases affecting the developing world such as malaria and polio. He told the Financial Times that the $50 million donation would be matched by at least the same amount in other private investments and a similar amount in future grants.

“I’m making this investment on my own, not through the foundation,” said Gates in a blog post which notes that the disease has afflicted a number of men in his own family.

“The first Alzheimer’s treatments might not come to fruition for another decade or more, and they will be very expensive at first. Once that day comes, our foundation might look at how we can expand access in poor countries.

Among the priorities identified by Gates is a better understanding of the disease process, earlier diagnosis, a more diverse drug pipeline, greater patient recruitment into trials and improved used of R&D data.

Since being set up, the DDF has attracted other big-name backers. Earlier this year biotech investment guru Neil Woodford pledged £15 million (around $19 million) to the fund, becoming its first backer beyond its core of Big Pharma founders (Biogen, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Takeda and Otsuka-subsidiary Astex), ARUK and the U.K. government.

One of the key benefits of the new cash will be allowing the DDF to expand its focus beyond the “amyloid hypothesis” of Alzheimer’s which is still the main therapeutic target despite a litany of expensive clinical trial failures in the last few years.

“The DDF team believes there is a significant opportunity to develop dementia drugs targeting biological pathways beyond the prevailing amyloid beta hypothesis and to apply insights from areas such as oncology and immunology to develop novel drugs targeting these other biological pathways that may drive different forms of dementia,” said the fund.

Since being set up the DDF has invested in 12 companies, including immuno-neurology startup Alector, stem cell company Gen2, mitochondrial disease player Mitoconix Bio, gene-silencing firm Ribometrix and microglial cell specialist Tiaki Therapeutics.