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This Investor Is Spurring Scientists to Race for a Game-changing Parkinson's Research Tool

Ken Griffin.

Photo Courtesy of Citadel.

In September, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) launched the “Ken Griffin Alpha­-synuclein Imaging Competition.” This $10-million program, funded in part by a leadership gift of $7.5 million from Ken Griffin — founder and CEO of the Chicago-based global investment firm Citadel — holds potential to transform Parkinson’s drug development. 

Griffin is a dedicated philanthropist, supporting organizations committed to furthering education, civic engagement and the arts, and health. In his philanthropy, as in business, he embraces calculated risk to create value. “I've often thought of successful entrepreneurs as individuals who have just the right expertise — at just the right moment — to solve the emerging problems of their time,” he says. 

Announced through a Fortune news story, Ken is now partnering with MJFF to bring this philosophy to the pursuit of a vital Parkinson’s research tool: an imaging tracer to visualize the key protein alpha-synuclein in the living brain. 

Nearly everyone with Parkinson’s has clumps of the alpha-synuclein protein in the brain. Scientists believe this clumping harms cells and results in symptoms of Parkinson’s. To this day, these clumps are visible only through post-mortem tissue analysis. This is a foremost challenge in diagnosing the disease and monitoring its progression. The ability to visualize alpha-synuclein in the living brain would open entirely new avenues in research and care. (A similar tool to image beta-amyloid has been a game-changer in Alzheimer’s research over the past several years.) 

“The ability to detect and diagnose disease in its earliest stages would give patients answers sooner and allow researchers to develop and test early intervention or even prevention therapies,” said Jamie Eberling, PhD, Director of Research Programs at MJFF. “Ken’s gift stands to level up the pursuit of a revolutionary resource.” 

For many years, the Foundation has funded independent studies and organized a consortium toward an alpha-synuclein imaging agent. In 2016, MJFF announced a $2-million prize for the first team to show clinical evidence of a tracer and make it available to the research community at large. (This past fall, at the Foundation’s 2019 PD Therapeutics Conference, biotechnology company AC Immune shared results from one such trial.) 

The Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition brings these efforts to the next level. The competition is structured to drive independent scientific teams to race to develop the synuclein tracer. The program is open now and accepting applications with the expectation of funding a total of $8.5 million to as many as three winning research teams. The team that progresses furthest in two years or less will be awarded an additional $1.5 million to continue the work and bring this game-changing tool to life. 

In his 2019 letter to investors, Griffin wrote: “Firms with the greatest capabilities, the deepest expertise and the most disciplined execution continue to generate significant returns, while firms that falter on these dimensions fall further and further behind.” Powered by the support of strategic philanthropists including Griffin, as well as thousands of gifts from everyday patients and families, the Foundation continues striving to achieve such returns for the Parkinson’s community. 

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