Along with Estée Lauder chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder, Bill Gates announced a new $30m award to encourage the development of new tests for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. The money will be awarded over three years.

PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer’s. Image credits: NIH.

In 2013, as many as 5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease and the CDC estimates that by 2050, the number will grow to 16 million. Elsewhere in the world, figures are similar, with 9.9 million new cases of dementia each year worldwide, implying one new case every 3.2 seconds.

Age is the best-known risk factor for the disease, although family history and lifestyle also play significant roles in the development of the disease. Other aspects, such as education have been linked to a reduction in Alzheimer’s cases, but that link is still being investigated. At any rate, early detection is critical to the management of the disease — and this is where Bill Gates steps in.

Gates, who recently announced that his father suffers from Alzheimer’s, has already invested $100 million towards stopping the disease, and has been particularly interested in understanding the onset and early stages of Alzheimer’s

“One of the things we’re trying to figure out is, when does the Alzheimer’s really get started?” he told NBC’s Maria Shriver in January. “When would you need to treat somebody to completely avoid them getting Alzheimer’s?”

Gates and Lauder provided seed money for the diagnostics collaboration through the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF), which was founded by Lauder. They’re not the only two investors in this fund — the Dolby family and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation will also contribute.

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The funding will be available to scientists and clinicians globally, as long as they work in academic settings, charities, or biotechnology companies. The program, dubbed the Diagnostics Accelerator, will also invest into riskier projects, which may not have an immediate commercial return, and are therefore less likely to receive other types of funding.

Currently, Alzheimer’s diagnosis is a long and painstaking process, involving several cognitive tests, followed by a brain scan or a spinal tap, which are used to determine whether the patient is suffering from Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. The process is not only lengthy, but also expensive, and in the case of a spinal tap, quite painful.

Additionally, patients don’t typically get tested for the disease until they start showing cognitive decline — and by that point, much of the damage has already been done. In a recent blog post, Gates writes:

“Research suggests Alzheimer’s starts damaging the brain more than a decade before symptoms start showing. That’s probably when we need to start treating people to have the best shot at an effective drug.”

Gates envisions a world where having an Alzheimer’s test is as simple as “getting your blood tested during your yearly physical.”

Research suggests that future isn’t that far off, and Diagnostics Accelerator moves us one step closer,” Gates concludes.

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