Fatal diseases usually follow a certain basic progression: A person becomes ill, then dies. Alzheimer's changes the order of events somewhat: The person disappears, yet continues to suffer illness. It's horribly rough on everyone involved.
Alzheimer's disease—which wipes out memory, cognitive function and ultimately the patient's very self—is not only nasty, efforts to develop treatments have been notably unsuccessful. Though it's the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., it continues to confound researchers. Clinical trials of potential treatments have failed a dispiriting 99.6 percent of the time.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation wants to move the success rate of Alzheimer's research above that .4 percent, and it believes the best way to do that is by supporting research into the fundamental biological causes of the disease. To that end, last month, the foundation announced $7 million in grants to five Alzheimer's research teams at research institutions in the US and England.
These Allen Distinguished Investigator (ADI) grants, between $1 million and $1.5 million each, went to scientists at the University of Cambridge, Oregon Health and Science University, Salk Institute, and two recipients at the University of California, San Francisco.
The ADI program is an example of the sort of private engine for early-stage, cutting-edge research that those in charge of taxpayer funding have a harder time justifying, given the understandable desire to get the most medical or scientific bang for the public's bucks. But sometimes, these high-risk ideas have the greatest potential to yield high rewards and move their fields forward.
The supported projects will investigate emerging areas of research in Alzheimer’s, including the role of genes, white matter damage, regulation of pH levels and a recently described brain-wide clearance system. Also supported is work to develop new methods and tools to study the basic processes involved in the disease and identify potential new treatments.
Paul Allen, who co-founded Microsoft in 1975, is one of the seminal figures in the cohort of major tech-billionaire philanthropists we often write about at IP. Indeed, we've been kind of obsessed with Allen lately, who's become a much more ambitious philanthropist over the past few years—so much so that we named him "philanthropist of the year" for 2014.
Allen established the Seattle-based family foundation back in 1988 with his sister Jody, and he has given more than $2 billion in his lifetime. But that's nothing compared to what may lie ahead: He's worth $17.4 billion, has no heirs, and has signed the Giving Pledge.
Like many philanthropists who start out with a personal mission—say, to support research into a disease that affected themselves or their family—the Allen foundation initially stayed close to home. Seattle natives, the brother and sister team worked to help people and communities in the Pacific Northwest, largely by supporting nonprofits promoting the arts and education. His big signature issue is brain research, and he's put hundreds of millions of dollars into the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
In this sense, of course, the recent Alzheimer's awards are really not so surprising. This interest area goes back a long way for Allen, and the Allen Institute has conducted a range of research on Alzheimer's. In fact, last year, it received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health for "to study the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on brain-wide connections."
Over the years, Paul Allen's focus has widened to include oceans, African poaching and, last year, combatting Ebola. The foundation has also steered more resources into scientific and health research, alongside the cultural programs. These include the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University.
All this work is interesting in and of itself. But another reason to pay super-close attention is because of the huge resources waiting in the wings. Allen and his team could choose to pump much more money into any of their current priorities—or all of them.
Will Alzheimer's become a major focus? Stayed tuned. But we could certainly imagine a push by Allen on Alzheimer's that might be similar to what James Simons is doing with autism—funding very targeted research on a dread disease in tandem with a broader philanthropic enterprise that underwrites basic research.
What's interesting about Alzheimer's right now is that despite its devastating effects—which will only grow in coming decades—we can't think of a mega-donor who's stepped forward to really own this space. Paul Allen has the money and interest to do exactly that.