New Incentive: Behind a Philanthropist's Big Prize for Alzheimer's Research

 photo: Chinnapong/shutterstock

 photo: Chinnapong/shutterstock

As we've noted before in Inside Philanthropy, high-dollar science prizes are one way that philanthropists of a certain bent seek to drive innovation in areas they believe are being ignored by public institutions or big-name research funders. Most of the prizes seem to be about inventions with high cool factors—building a tricorder, a jetpack or a rocket. But recently, a Florida philanthropist announced a prize for disease research, an area less often associated with these sorts of gee-whiz discovery prizes. 

The Alzheimer’s Germ Quest comes from a Naples, Florida, medical newsletter publisher named Leslie Norins, who's offering $1 million to the first researcher that can find persuasive evidence of the bacterium, virus, or other microbe that causes Alzheimer's. 

Wait—an Alzheimer's infection? If that sounds puzzling, it's likely because you've been reading for years that Alzheimer's seems to involve amyloid plaques and protein tangles that glob onto and damage neurons in the brain, with inflammation possibly playing some role, as well. Much of the research pursues these ideas (and no doubt others).

Norins has both an MD and a Ph.D. in immunology, though for 44 years he has been a publisher of medical newsletters. Early in his career, according to the press release, he directed the Venereal Disease Research Laboratory at the CDC, so he has relevant background. Now, Norins says there's enough evidence suggesting that Alzheimer's is caused by infection to warrant serious investigation. If true, it would likely be a game-changer in the search for a cure, but the idea is not widely accepted by mainstream funders of medical research.

"(T)here has not so far been a thorough search for a causative microbe for AD," says Norins' Alzheimer's Germ Quest website. "In fact, virtually none of today’s $1.6 billion in AD research funding is dedicated to finding an Alzheimer’s germ." 

Norins' website has details of the three-year contest. 

Alzheimer's disease has certainly been a tough nut to crack. Effective treatments or cures have proved elusive, despite the awfulness of the condition for patients and families and the immense costs to society, which are expected to grow as the population ages. 

While prizes may seem like a harmless way to add yet another incentive for needed innovation—in this case, a desperately needed treatment—they have their critics as well as their proponents. For an excellent discussion of science prizes, take a look at IP's earlier post, below. 

Related: Another Week, Another New Prize. Is That a Good Thing?

In any technical or scientific field, it is easy to side with the experts at top institutions who dismiss outliers. In medical research, this happens all the time—besides, many outliers really are wrong.  

Except when they're not. Up until not too many decades ago everyone knew that gastric ulcers were caused by stress and stomach acid. Everyone knew it for a hundred years. But an Australian doctor who believed that ulcers were caused by bacterial infection, and could therefore be effectively treated with antibiotics, was met with derision by the medical community. 

Cut to Stockholm, not too many years later, as that doctor and his co-investigator received the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that the Helicobacter pylori bacterium actually caused ulcers and other gastrointestinal diseases. The Alzheimer's germ may be a dead end. But with a condition as serious and widespread as Alzheimer's, where no effective treatments yet exist, perhaps a prize could be the best way to make meaningful progress. 

As we've noted before, the stakes could hardly be higher for U.S. society—and the world—when it comes to unlocking the mysteries of neurodegenerative diseases. It's been estimated that the United States will spend $1 trillion a year dealing with these diseases by 2050. 

RelatedBig Philanthropy's Latest Salvo in the High-Stakes War on Alzheimer's and Dementia