A Funder's Push for a Game-Changing Play to Vanquish a Dread Disease

Positive α-Synuclein staining of a Lewy body from a patient who had Parkinson's disease. Credit: Marvin 101 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)Efforts to conquer dread diseases have preoccupied philanthropists for over a century. Just yesterday, we wrote about how the Gates Foundation has given $4 billion (yes, billion with a "b") to eradicate polio once and for all. Meanwhile, we're tracking many other efforts, large and small, to combat horrible diseases and medical conditions. Earlier this week, for example, we wrote about work, still at a modest scale, to better understand Lyme Disease. And we write all the time about the big ongoing grantmaking to conquer such top health threats as cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.

Few of these efforts have yet yielded transformative breakthroughs, but hope endures, money keeps flowing, and incremental progress ensues.

Parkinson's isn't among the first-tier health threats facing Americans, but it's super-scary in the way it can strike people in the prime of life. And it's received enormous attention from the Parkinsons struggles of Mohammed Ali and Michael J. Fox.

Fox turned his own experience with the disease into a massive philanthropic undertaking—the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. MJFF says it's the world's largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's drug development, and since 2000 has put more than $450 million into research for a cure. That's a big number for a private funder, yet—here again—game-changing breakthroughs have proven elusive.

Now this funder has a new plan to up the ante and the pace. 

Wanna win $2 million? It's easy: all you've got to do is develop a viable alpha-synuclein PET tracer capable of imaging brain deposition in vivo, with relatively high selectivity to alpha-synuclein.

Achieve that before anyone else (and adhere to all contest rules) and MJFF will send you a check under its newly announced Alpha-Synuclein Imaging Prize.

The new MJFF prize is a slightly different approach than the standard grant-to-fund-research: It's riskier, because researchers may end up toiling unpaid on the problem. Two million bucks is a strong enticement, but it's for what's believed to be an important hurdle for Parkinson's research.

What's so special about alpha-synuclein? It's a protein, abundant in the human brain, that accumulates into pathological clumps in the brains of people with Parkinson's. As a hallmark of the condition, the protein is of great interest to researchers, who think it may be key to the neurodegeneration that causes Parkinson's serious cognitive, motor and other symptoms.

The ability to image the protein accurately and relatively noninvasively in living patients could shed light on Parkinson's pathology and progression, and speed the development of drugs that either reduce levels of the protein or stop its accumulation.

The MJFF hopes the prize will attract research teams and accelerate momentum in what it believes would be a game changer for Parkinson's.

We have written about several MJFF grant programs, many of which run to several hundred thousand dollars a year for medical schools and other research centers. The foundation also funds interesting research into what are known as organs on chips, technology used for drug development to test the effect of the drugs more quickly and more safely than in actual human participants.

It has funded genetic research, vaccine development and numerous other areas. And the new prize is hardly its first foray into the biomarker question: Since 2010, it's been a co-sponsor of the $60 million Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative, spanning 22 clinical sites in 11 countries, to find biomarkers for the disease such as alpha-synuclein.