Bezos joins Gates-backed Alzheimer's diagnostics accelerator with new focus on digital biomarkers

Bill Gates
Bill Gates pointed to research into voice recordings gathered through the 70-year Framingham Heart Study that could one day lead to smartphone-based diagnostics for monitoring cognitive decline. (CC BY 2.0/Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance)

Bill Gates, the second-richest man in the world, is already backing an effort to build better ways to diagnose and track Alzheimer’s disease. Now, he's helped sign on the world's richest man to back the effort as well.

With new support from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and other donors, the Diagnostic Accelerator "venture philanthropy" project at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF) is poised to name its first grantees in the near future and has begun taking applications for a second round of grants focused on fast-tracking digital tools for the disease and its related dementias. 

The accelerator fund launched last July with plans to deliver nearly $35 million in grants over three years for the development of new clinical biomarkers and tests. With the additions of Bezos and his wife MacKenzie, plus other funding commitments, that total has now grown to nearly $50 million.

“It’s hard to overstate how important finding a reliable, affordable, and easy-to-use diagnostic is for stopping Alzheimer’s,” Gates wrote in a post on his blog, pointing to technologies on the horizon that could involve simple blood tests or analyses of voice recordings to spot early signs of the disease.

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The current standards of brain scans and spinal taps can be too expensive or invasive and typically aren’t pursued until after a person has shown signs of cognitive decline, he wrote.

Gates highlighted work by Boston University researcher Rhoda Au, who heads up neuropsychology work for the decades-long Framingham Heart Study that has gathered thousands of audio recordings of its participants spanning several years, including patients that eventually developed Alzheimer’s disease.   

“There’s a lot going on when you speak,” Gates wrote. “The whole assembly process of how you string words together and form sentences is complicated.”

“If you could use a computer to analyze how an Alzheimer’s patient speaks over the years, you might be able to pick up on subtle changes—and then look for those same patterns in younger patients who show no other signs of the disease,” he added, but noted the work is still in its early stages and researchers aren’t yet sure which speech patterns to look for.

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One company working on the data is Fierce 15 winner Evidation Health, which plans to publish analyses of Framingham audio and speech recordings later this year under a DARPA grant and in collaboration with MIT and Boston University.

“The interest from the philanthropic as well as the scientific community has been tremendous,” said Howard Fillit, founding executive director and chief science officer of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation.

By expanding its work into digital biomarkers such as audio analyses and other cognitive assessments, the ADDF hopes to augment traditional, wet laboratory tests and imaging tools with more cost-effective or remotely accessible approaches used in both clinical research and general practice.

“This real-world evidence has the potential to add significant value to clinical trials, increasing patient engagement, enhancing monitoring, and greatly improving treatment outcomes,” Fillit said.