Between Lab and Lifesaver: Cash to Cross the Valley of Death on Alzheimer's

Early last year, when we covered the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation’s Program to Accelerate Clinical Trials, we expressed our relief that another foundation was in the game of finding new and better Alzheimer’s drugs. The foundational genetics stuff that the Cure Alzheimer’s Foundation and others are backing is important, to be sure, but there’s something intrinsically hopeful about a program specifically designed to combat the Valley of Death—that no man’s land between research and application where promising projects languish, unfunded.

Now, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation is making news again, this time for the announcement of five grants totaling nearly $1.5 million. As expected, there are grants for clinical trials, but also other things: together, these grants are a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the ADDF, and it’s worth taking a closer look.

First off, and least surprising: two preclinical grants totaling over $375,000. These are the projects the ADDF is catapulting out of the Valley of Death. A grant of $215,293 is going to Carmela R. Abraham, Ph.D., of the Boston University School of Medicine. Abraham is experimenting with Klotho protein, a key regulator of biological pathways related to aging in the brain. If elevating Klotho levels can protect neurons from age-related cell death, it may slow the progress of Alzheimer’s and even multiple sclerosis. This is the sixth year Abraham is receiving ADDF funding; she has already isolated a promising group of “Klotho boosters” that require further testing and development in order to reach the clinical trial stage.

Second, ADDF is offering a $161,759 preclinical grant to Berkley Lynch, P.h.D, of Rodin Therapeutics. Lynch is exploring the possibility of finding epigenetic treatments or cures for Alzheimer’s: specifically, ways of altering gene expression that may lead to a reduction in cognitive impairment caused by the disease. A prior recipient of ADDF funding, Lynch plans to undertake extensive safety testing of specific epigenetic drug candidates for Alzheimer’s disease.

A third ADDF grant funds an actual trial: A previous recipient of NIH funding, Paul Newhouse, M.D., of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, will receive $539,798 in ADDF funds to launch a trial studying the effects of nicotine patches on Alzheimer’s patients. While smoking likely increases dementia risk, nicotine alone may serve to activate receptors in the brain that promote cognitive ability. If this trial goes well, Alzheimer’s sufferers could have an immediate treatment: The patches are already widely available and affordable.

Grants for biomarker studies were not what we expected to find in ADDF’s grant list, given that biomarkers grants comprise much of what other Alzheimer’s organizations typically fund. Yet, biomarker studies are an important first step towards reaching success in a clinical setting—they deal with tracking the disease’s progression, improving patient selection for clinical trials, and monitoring patient response to drugs in trials.

To that end, ADDF has awarded Mari DeMarco, Ph.D., DABCC, of the University of British Columbia $164,990 for her study titled Quantitation of TDP-43 Isoforms in Cerebrospinal Fluid by Mass Spectrometry. Keith St. Lawrence, Ph.D., Lawson Health Research Institute, was awarded $163,626 for his study titled The Role of Perfusion MRI in Improving the Diagnosis of Frontotemporal Dementia Subtypes and Longitudinal Monitoring of Disease Progression.

"The ADDF is committed to funding novel ideas on the forefront of Alzheimer's research," said ADDF founding Executive Director and Chief Science Officer Howard Fillit. "These grants will advance an epigenetic therapy, a drug with the potential to slow down the effects of aging on the brain, and another that could preserve memory in people with mild cognitive impairment. And our investments in biomarkers may help physicians detect and accurately diagnose different types of dementia so patients can get appropriate care."