High-profile investors led by billionaires Bill Gates and Leonard Lauder are throwing their weight behind a “venture philanthropy vehicle” offering more than $30 million in grants for new biomarkers and early diagnostic tests for Alzheimer’s disease.
In collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, the new Diagnostics Accelerator will aim to back promising research that may not guarantee an immediate commercial return—hoping to take more risks than a traditional VC fund, while also focusing on products being developed for market, over basic science research.
One of the main bottlenecks in Alzheimer’s drug development has been a lack of validated biomarkers to diagnose patients noninvasively, monitor progression or reveal subgroups that may benefit from specific therapies in clinical trials.
“Like in cancer today, 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,” said Howard Fillit, founding executive director and chief science officer of the ADDF.
Currently, the only way to definitively diagnose the disease is through an autopsy; tests of cognitive decline need to rule out other possible causes. Positron emission tomography scans can be used to detect amyloid plaque deposits in the brain, but the technology is not widely available and carries high radiation exposure.
"The significance of biomarkers in Alzheimer's disease research is underscored by recent FDA guidelines that recognize the critical role of biomarkers in drug development, and shift the research definition of the early stages of the disease to include biomarkers, even before clinical symptoms become apparent," Fillit added.
The $30 million in grants, provided over the next three years, will be available globally to existing biotech companies and new spinouts as mission-related investments—as well as to academic medical centers, universities and nonprofits, with industry partnerships being encouraged.
“If any of the projects backed by Diagnostics Accelerator succeed, our share of the financial windfall goes right back into the fund,” Gates wrote in a post on his blog.
The venture philanthropy model splits the difference between public investments aimed at advancing cutting-edge research, and VC firms hunting for projects with the largest possible returns, Gates said. While there has been promising research in the field, the lack of a commercial market has meant that very few companies are trying to translate that work into a product.
“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem,” he wrote. “It’s hard to come up with a game changing new drug without a cheaper and less invasive way to diagnose patients earlier. But most people don’t want to find out if they have the disease earlier when there’s no way to treat it.”
The former Microsoft chief and Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estee Lauder group of cosmetics companies and co-founder of the ADDF, provided the accelerator’s initial funding alongside other philanthropists including the Dolby family and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation.
Last November, Gates announced his first, personal investment in Alzheimer’s research, committing $50 million to the U.K.-based Dementia Discovery Fund. The money was given separately from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he described how the disease has afflicted a number of his family members.
At the time, Gates listed early detection and diagnostics among his top funding priorities in Alzheimer’s, alongside developing a better scientific understanding of the disease process, diversifying the drug pipeline, increasing clinical trial recruitment and improving the use of research data.