Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
And it’s the only top 10 cause of death without any treatment to cure, prevent, or delay the disease.
To fight back against this growing problem, Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced this month a donation of $50 million in the hopes of funding research that could find a way to treat Alzheimer’s.
He targeted his donation to the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF), a private fund focused on helping researchers looking for new ways to stop Alzheimer’s disease.
Gates donated his own money, not from his foundation.
The high-tech billionaire said his reasons for getting involved were personal.
“I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it,” he wrote in a statement. “It feels a lot like you’re experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew.”
The problem is only getting worse, too.
An estimated 5 million Americans are currently diagnosed with the condition, and a sharp increase is expected in the future.
According to one study, the number of people with dementia globally may triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia.
Going past the mainstream
Over recent years, major drug companies have focused mainly on developing drugs that target the amyloid plaques and tau proteins, or “tangles,” that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
But Gates is funding research that is looking at new avenues.
“DDF complements their work by supporting startups as they explore less mainstream approaches to treating dementia,” Gates said.
Experts say Gates’ donation could be key in helping fund or bring attention to new, alternative, or “out of the box” treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Marc L. Gordon, chair of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York and a professor at Litwin-Zucker Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, said there’s a tremendous need for more funding to help stop the rise of this disease.
“This an area which is a huge public health problem and issue, and [affects] a lot of people’s lives very, very deeply,” Gordon told Healthline. “It has generally been highly underfunded compared to other diseases and things that people invest in.”
Gordon pointed out that it’s important to diversify research since there is yet to be an effective way of stopping the disease.
“A lot of the research has been dominated by the amyloid hypothesis. There has been a number of clinical trials on that hypothesis and it didn’t pan out,” he said. “There needs to be a broad approach. I don’t think this is a new concept to not put all your eggs in one basket and be open to other hypotheses.”
A drop in the research bucket?
While Gates’ donation of $50 million is a lot of money, in research terms it’s relatively small.
The U.S. National Institutes for Health alone spends an estimated $1.4 billion on research for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
However, Gordon said Gates’ donation could be an inspiration for others to join and give money.
“It’s weird, we live in an age where we say ‘Well 50 million dollars, it’s not that much money,’” he said. “I think he can serve as an example to other people. That there is a need for philanthropic [contributions] for Alzheimer’s research.”
Dr. Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, said if you actually look at federal funding for Alzheimer’s disease research from just 5 or 10 years ago, the donation’s impact can really be seen.
“I mean it’s only been three or four years that we’ve been seeing increases in funding at the federal levels,” she said. “A few years ago we were only at about $450 million dollars. We’ve had some big wins from our champions in Washington D.C.”
Snyder pointed out that while the current federal funding for Alzheimer’s research is large, it’s still dwarfed by federal funding for cancer or cardiovascular disease research.
Those are $6 billion and $2 billion, respectively.
Gordon also said that by giving money to this private fund, scientists can look for research avenues that aren’t just related to pharmaceutical companies.
“Certainly, a lot of the research has been driven by pharma companies, and there’s nothing I think intrinsically wrong with it, but it sometimes can limit options,” he said. “It can eliminate things that are off the beaten path and not mainstream.”
Snyder pointed out that even though there isn’t a way to treat the disease, recent research breakthroughs have helped in other ways.
She said better imaging techniques like PET imaging have developed out of research partially funded by the Alzheimer’s Association.
The technology is now being used to help understand the way Alzheimer’s disease works, even if it hasn’t yet led to a cure.
“Bringing innovation into the conversation to a greater level… will be very important,” she said.