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.
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 its Alzheimer’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.”
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.
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.”