29 May 2013. The focus of the next XPRIZE is Alzheimer’s disease. The XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that creates highly coveted prizes for advances in human endeavor, will award a total of $50 million—the biggest XPRIZE yet—to anyone who develops a new therapy for Alzheimer’s. Though details of the prize have yet to be finalized, it may rally a new set of innovators to the charge against this disease, said Eric Leuthardt, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the scientists who proposed the idea at this year’s Visioneering conference, 25-28 April 2013 in Newport Beach, California. This annual meeting brings together experts from many disciplines to vote on what the XPRIZE Foundation should fund next. “The XPRIZE will engage people beyond those who are addressing Alzheimer’s now,” Leuthardt said. “Involving people from divergent backgrounds can potentially provide game-changing breakthroughs,” he told Alzforum.
More than 100 scientists, artists, business leaders, and philanthropists from around the world gathered at the conference to design and pitch innovative solutions to the world’s “Grand Challenges,” ultimately voting for which idea should be the focus of the newest XPRIZE. Participants proposed ideas to the larger assembly, with concepts falling into one of five topic areas: energy and environment, exploration, global development, learning, and life sciences. Leuthardt and Dean Ornish from the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, Sausalito, California, headed a team that pitched Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They proposed giving $50 million for, as they put it, “new therapeutic options … that can, at least by 25 percent, improve the therapeutic efficacy of what’s out there.” Their final pitch to the conference can be viewed here.
“I don’t think people outside the medical or pharmacological community fully appreciate the size of the Alzheimer’s problem,” Leuthardt told Alzforum. However, he said the conference participants provided overwhelming support. "Visioneers" voted for the overall winner by a show of colored glow sticks. “It was pretty cool to see the room turn yellow in support of our proposal,” said Leuthardt. Other ideas pitched included pulling drinkable water from air, transforming K-8 education with online games, expanding Internet access to the 69 million Americans who lack it, and awarding extra prize money to XPRIZE teams made up of at least 50 percent women. The last pitch will also be funded.
XPRIZE will raise the $50 million for the new Alzheimer’s award while it irons out the details.
Such an award may be both good and bad, Dennis Selkoe, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, wrote to Alzforum via e-mail. On one hand, the prize may “galvanize the non-AD-expert community, including Congress, to take the threat of AD more seriously and put forward larger amounts of money needed to make a therapeutic dent in the AD problem.” It will likely also encourage AD experts to "think outside of the box" about how to treat AD, he wrote. At the same time, the prize may divert AD experts away from their current research toward creating the most compelling XPRIZE application. It is important to make sure people do not turn away from scientific progress that has already been made, Selkoe cautioned. “A few thoughtful leaders in our community should come together soon to think through what impact this will have on AD research, rather than just letting it happen, which could have unintended and perhaps even negative consequences,” he wrote.
Most FDA-approved drugs are developed by pharmaceutical companies; the market for disease-modifying or preventative drugs for Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Currently, three active XPRIZEs are ongoing. They will reward the first teams to:
- invent a portable, wireless, palm-held “tricorder” that monitors and diagnoses multiple health conditions;
- develop a fast, inexpensive way to sequence 100 centenarian genomes (see ARF related news story);
- safely land a navigable, broadcasting robot on the moon. Previously awarded XPRIZEs have spurred development of private spacecraft, rockets, fuel-efficient vehicles, and oil cleanup methods.
An Alzheimer’s treatment now joins this list.—Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib.