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Bill Gates has made his first move to support Alzheimer’s disease research, with a $50m investment in the London-based Dementia Discovery Fund. The DDF provides venture finance for companies developing innovative treatments for Alzheimer’s and related neurodegenerative diseases.
Mr Gates, 62, has become the biggest philanthropic funder of health research through the $40bn Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses mainly on diseases of the developing world.
Now he has begun to invest some of his personal wealth, estimated at about $90bn, in Alzheimer’s — one of the greatest health problems in the ageing populations of industrialised countries. “It is the only cause of death in the top 10 without any meaningful treatments that is becoming more prevalent each year,” he said.
In addition to the $50m DDF investment, Mr Gates told the FT: “I’ll put at least as much as the $50m into other private investments and I’ll probably over time put the same amount into grants.”
The grants will help to build the infrastructure required to process the torrents of disparate data pouring out of Alzheimer’s labs in the private and public sectors around the world.
“I believe we are at a turning point in Alzheimer’s research and development, in which the Dementia Discovery Fund is playing an important role by exploring new approaches to treat the disease,” he said. “I’m excited to join the fight and can’t wait to see what happens next.”
DDF is an unusual commercial partnership launched in October 2015 to find new dementia treatments by the UK government, seven international drug companies and the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK — the beneficiary of this year’s FT Seasonal Appeal which will be launched next week. The investment by Mr Gates takes DDF past its original target of raising £130m and more investors are expected to sign up soon.
The fund has invested in 12 start-up companies and projects investigating novel ways to stop or reverse the complex biological processes that lead to dementia. Its strategy is to move beyond the “amyloid hypothesis” — the idea that Alzheimer’s can be treated by attacking the sticky plaques of beta amyloid protein that build up in patients’ brains. The pharmaceuticals industry has lost billions of dollars in failed development of drugs designed to target amyloid. There is still no treatment that affects the underlying progression of the disease.
Damaged neurons, beta amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient © NIH/Creative commons
Mr Gates has spent a year studying the science of dementia, including briefings with the world’s leading experts on the disease. “When he came in to see us, it was like talking to a professional neuroscientist,” said Kate Bingham, managing partner of SV Health, the venture fund that runs DDF. “We had deep scientific discussions exploring the biology of microglia and mitochondria.”
Microglia are specialist immune cells with a garbage-collecting role in the brain. Mitochondria are the power plants within all cells, providing energy. Failure of either is implicated in dementia.
Several of the 12 companies funded by DDF, mainly in the US and UK, are focusing on restoring the brain’s immune system or mitochondrial function. DDF’s first investment, California-based Alector, last month announced a $225m deal with AbbVie, the US pharmaceutical group, to develop immunotherapies for Alzheimer’s.
“I first became interested in Alzheimer’s because of its costs, both emotional and human, to families and healthcare systems,” Mr Gates said. “Some of the men in my family [had Alzheimer’s],” he added. “It is not the primary reason for my interest but it has highlighted what a tragedy it is.”
Americans spent an estimated $236bn last year caring for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Mr Gates declines to blame the pharma industry for its failure so far to produce an effective treatment. “I am impressed by the drug companies, to be honest, because it is a daunting field,” he said. “If you get something [after more than 10 years R&D] the value will be incredible but if you don’t, which has unfortunately been the case so far, people second-guess and say ‘You should have known that, you shouldn’t have invested in that area’.”
He praised pharma and biotech companies, big and small, for remaining engaged, despite past failures. Although Mr Gates is determinedly optimistic about the changes of success, he declines to predict when a breakthrough will come or what it might be.
“Making any prediction is hard since the kind of brute force attack on the plaques did not so far yield a result,” he said. “The brain is by far the most mysterious organ because we still don’t know even the basic processes, like how memories are formed.”