The World’s Most Famous Billionaires Are Joining Forces to Fight Alzheimer’s
Phil Gutis never had a stellar memory, but when he reached his early 50s, it became a problem he could no longer ignore. He had trouble calculating how much to tip after a meal, finding things he had just put on his desk, and understanding simple driving directions.
From 1998-2017, industry sources reported 146 failed attempts at developing Alzheimer's drugs.
So three years ago, at age 54, he answered an ad for a drug trial seeking people experiencing memory issues. He scored so low in the memory testing he was told something was wrong. M.R.I.s and PET scans confirmed that he had early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Gutis, who is a former New York Times reporter and American Civil Liberties Union spokesman, felt fortunate to get into an advanced clinical trial of a new treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The drug, called aducanumab, had shown promising results in earlier studies.
Four years of data had found that the drug effectively reduced the burden of protein fragments called beta-amyloids, which destroy connections between nerve cells. Amyloid plaques are found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease and are associated with impairments in thinking and memory.
Gutis eagerly participated in the clinical trial and received 35 monthly infusions. "For the first 20 infusions, I did not know whether I was receiving the drug or the placebo," he says. "During the last 15 months, I received aducanumab. But it really didn't matter if I was receiving the drug or the placebo because on March 21, the trial was stopped because [the drug company] Biogen found that the treatments were ineffective."
The news was devastating to the trial participants, but also to the Alzheimer's research community. Earlier this year, another pharmaceutical company, Roche, announced it was discontinuing two of itsAlzheimer's clinical trials. From 1998-2017, industry sources reported 146 failed attempts at developing Alzheimer's drugs. There are five prescription drugs approved to treat its symptoms, but a cure remains elusive. The latest failures have left researchers scratching their heads about how to approach attacking the disease.
The failure of aducanumab was also another setback for the estimated 5.8 million people who have Alzheimer's in the United States. Of these, around 5.6 million are older than 65 and 200,000 suffer from the younger-onset form, including Gutis.
Gutis is understandably distraught about the cancellation of the trial. "I really had hopes it would work. So did all the patients."
While drug companies have failed so far, another group is stepping up to expedite the development of a cure: venture philanthropists.
For now, he is exercising every day to keep his blood flowing, which is supposed to delay the progression of the disease, and trying to eat a low-fat diet. "But I know that none of it will make a difference. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease. There are no treatments to delay it, let alone cure it."
But while drug companies have failed so far, another group is stepping up to expedite the development of a cure: venture philanthropists. These are successful titans of industry and dedicated foundations who are donating large sums of money to fill a much-needed void – funding research to look for new biomarkers.
Biomarkers are neurochemical indicators that can be used to detect the presence of a disease and objectively measure its progression. There are currently no validated biomarkers for Alzheimer's, but researchers are actively studying promising candidates. The hope is that they will find a reliable way to identify the disease even before the symptoms of mental decline show up, so that treatments can be directed at a very early stage.
Howard Fillit, Founding Executive Director and Chief Science Officer of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, says, "We need novel biomarkers to diagnose Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. But pharmaceutical companies don't put money into biomarkers research."
One of the venture philanthropists who has recently stepped up to the task is Bill Gates. In January 2018, he announced his father had Alzheimer's disease in an interview on the Today Show with Maria Shriver, whose father Sargent Shriver, died of Alzheimer's disease in 2011. Gates told Ms. Shriver that he had invested $100 million into Alzheimer's research, with $50 million of his donation going to Dementia Discovery Fund, which looks for new cures and treatments.
That August, Gates joined other investors in a new fund called Diagnostics Accelerator. The project aims to supports researchers looking to speed up new ideas for earlier and better diagnosis of the disease.
Gates and other donors committed more than $35 million to help launch it, and this April, Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos joined the coalition, bringing the current program funding to nearly $50 million.
"It makes sense that a challenge this significant would draw the attention of some of the world's leading thinkers."
None of these funders stand to make a profit on their donation, unlike traditional research investments by drug companies. The standard alternatives to such funding have upsides -- and downsides.
As Bill Gates wrote on his blog, "Investments from governments or charitable organizations are fantastic at generating new ideas and cutting-edge research -- but they're not always great at creating usable products, since no one stands to make a profit at the end of the day.
"Venture capital, on the other end of the spectrum, is more likely to develop a test that will reach patients, but its financial model favors projects that will earn big returns for investors. Venture philanthropy splits the difference. It incentivizes a bold, risk-taking approach to research with an end goal of a real product for real patients. If any of the projects backed by Diagnostics Accelerator succeed, our share of the financial windfall goes right back into the fund."
Gutis said he is thankful for any attention given to finding a cure for Alzheimer's.
"Most doctors and scientists will tell you that we're still in the dark ages when it comes to fully understanding how the brain works, let alone figuring out the cause or treatment for Alzheimer's.
"It makes sense that a challenge this significant would draw the attention of some of the world's leading thinkers. I only hope they can be more successful with their entrepreneurial approach to finding a cure than the drug companies have been with their more traditional paths."
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”