Competition funded by Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin spurred a scientific race to develop an imaging tracer to visualize the key protein alpha-synuclein in the living brains of people with Parkinson’s
While Merck has been named the winner of the competition, all three finalist teams have developed tracers that will undergo further testing and human trials
Program builds on The Michael J. Fox Foundation’s longstanding commitment to accelerate tracer development research — a critical tool for drug development and Parkinson’s diagnosis and treatment
NEW YORK (March 28, 2023) – Today, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) announced the culmination of the “Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition,” a $10-million program launched in 2019 in pursuit of an imaging tracer to visualize the key protein alpha-synuclein in the living brains of people with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Funded by a leadership gift from Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin, the competition has been a critical step in MJFF’s relentless pursuit of better treatments, cures and disease prevention.
Clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein are found in the brains of people with Parkinson’s. Scientists believe this clumping harms cells and results in disease symptoms, but, to date, these clumps have been visible only through post-mortem tissue analysis. Successfully imaging these aggregations in the living brain could help measure progression, improve diagnosis and reveal key aspects of PD’s biology. The Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition has brought the field closer than ever to this level of imaging.
“These three teams have put us on a path to revolutionizing care for the millions of people living with Parkinson’s disease,” said Griffin. “I care deeply about improving the lives of those touched by PD and am proud to support the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s leadership in the pursuit of a cure for this disease.”
The Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition was a turning point in MJFF’s decades-long pursuit of this elusive tracer. The Foundation first built a consortium dedicated to this effort in 2010 and made additional multi-million investments — totaling $36 million — over 13 years. The start of the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition in 2019 was the beginning of a new chapter — the injection of a $10-milllion investment catapulted the field forward and spurred a scientific race that is nearing its end in just three years.
“In the Foundation’s early days, we heard from companies that an alpha-synuclein imaging tracer would be a game-changer for drug development, yet it was seen as one of the most challenging areas,” said Jamie Eberling, PhD, MJFF’s senior vice president of research resources, who pioneered the Foundation’s imaging program since she joined in 2009. “To see where we are today is astonishing. The progress from all teams represents a pivotal moment in transforming the future of diagnostic and therapeutic tools that are urgently needed.”
As the Competition Culminates, the Next Chapter Begins
At its launch in 2019, the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition was a new venture for Ken Griffin, who had never before funded Parkinson’s research. His decision to fund this project was a personal one — Griffin’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s several years before the competition began.
By 2020, the competition awarded three finalist teams — AC Immune, Mass General Brigham and Merck (known as MSD outside the United States and Canada) — a combined $8.5 million to develop an imaging tracer that could be used in a PET scan to visualize alpha-synuclein. Today, the competition is awarding Helen Mitchell, PhD, Robert Drolet, PhD, and Eric Hostetler, PhD and their team at Merck with an additional $1.5 million to continue their research. With the team’s leading data and its discovery, development and optimization of several potential alpha-synuclein imaging agents, a first-in-human clinical trial of its alpha-synuclein PET tracer is set to begin in 2023.
Remarkably, all Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition teams made tremendous advancements in the development of different alpha-synuclein tracer methods. Both Merck and Mass General Brigham are preparing tracers for human trials. Meanwhile, AC Immune continues to work on developing its alpha-synuclein tracer for Parkinson’s, which to date became the first to successfully visualize alpha-synuclein in living human patients with multiple system atrophy (a related parkinsonism). AC Immune is now advancing its tracer for MSA as well as several second-generation alpha-synuclein tracers towards the clinic.
“Merck is proud to receive this award from the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition,” said Jason M. Uslaner, PhD, vice president and head of neuroscience discovery, Merck Research Laboratories. “We believe a selective PET tracer for alpha-synuclein has the potential to enable earlier diagnosis for Parkinson’s disease and inform efforts to develop new treatment options.”
Today, an estimated six million people worldwide live with Parkinson’s, a number that is expected to double by the year 2040 due to an aging population. With the number of people impacted by Parkinson’s increasing, there is an urgent demand to visualize alpha-synuclein in the living brain in order to accelerate the development of new PD therapies, improve diagnosis and monitor progression.
A functioning tracer would reveal underlying biology that could lead to new treatments, while also providing a new measure of progression. That measurement, or biomarker, could make it significantly easier and more effective to test early interventions targeting alpha-synuclein. As more therapies to slow or stop PD progression enter and advance in clinical trials, the need for objective measures of disease grows. Seeing alpha-synuclein in the living brain would enable researchers to confirm diagnosis, identify volunteers for clinical trials and assess drug efficacy at a more rapid pace.
“Thanks to the strategic and generous philanthropy of Ken Griffin, the science around an alpha-synuclein imaging tracer is racing forward at an unprecedented pace,” said MJFF CEO and Co-Founder Debi Brooks. “With this infusion of capital, we are closer than ever to bringing this transformative tool to life, and closer to delivering tangible results to people and families with Parkinson’s.”
About The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF)
As the world's largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's research, The Michael J. Fox Foundation is dedicated to accelerating a cure for Parkinson's disease and improved therapies for those living with the condition today. The Foundation pursues its goals through an aggressively funded, highly targeted research program coupled with active global engagement of scientists, Parkinson's patients, business leaders, clinical trial participants, donors and volunteers. In addition to funding $1.75 billion in research to date, the Foundation has fundamentally altered the trajectory of progress toward a cure. Operating at the hub of worldwide Parkinson's research, the Foundation forges groundbreaking collaborations with industry leaders, academic scientists and government research funders; creates a robust open-access data set and biosample library to speed scientific breakthroughs and treatment with its landmark clinical study, PPMI; increases the flow of participants into Parkinson's disease clinical trials with its online tool, Fox Trial Finder; promotes Parkinson's awareness through high-profile advocacy, events and outreach; and coordinates the grassroots involvement of thousands of Team Fox members around the world. For more information, visit us at www.michaeljfox.org, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation