Today, The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) announced the winners of the “Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition,” a program launched in September 2019 to spur a scientific race in pursuit of an imaging tracer to visualize the key protein alpha-synuclein in the living brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. The three winning teams — from AC Immune, Mass General Brigham, and Merck (known as MSD outside the U.S. and Canada)— were selected from a competitive pool of applicants.
An imaging tracer would be used in a PET scan to visualize alpha-synuclein — a protein that clumps in the brains of people with Parkinson’s and comprises Lewy bodies. Scientists believe this clumping harms cells and results in symptoms of the disease, but currently, these clumps are only visible through post-mortem tissue analysis. The ability to visualize alpha-synuclein in the living brain could accelerate the development of new therapies for Parkinson’s and be an important new diagnostic tool for physicians.
The $10-million competition is funded in large part through a $7.5 million leadership gift from Ken Griffin, Founder and CEO of Citadel.
“I am proud to join The Michael J. Fox Foundation in supporting the important research driven by these incredible teams at AC Immune, Mass General Brigham and Merck,” said Griffin. “We look forward to their continued progress as we work together to unlock game-changing breakthroughs for the millions of people living with Parkinson’s disease.”
The three winning projects represent innovative approaches to tracer development:
Marie Kosco-Vilbois, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at AC Immune, leads a team that has successfully used the company’s innovative Morphomer discovery platform to advance two alpha-synuclein tracers to human clinical testing. Through this grant, AC Immune will continue its preclinical and clinical program, to optimize and test a tracer compound in partnership with PET imaging experts at Lund University and Skåne University Hospital. The program’s goal is to quickly move into clinical testing of new candidates with the potential to become a first-in-class PET tracer for alpha-synuclein.
A team including Changning Wang, PhD, Vikram Khurana, MD, PhD, and Stephen Gomperts, MD, PhD from Mass General Brigham, and Tim Bartels, PhD, from University College London plans to identify new tracer leads using a high-throughput screen of a large DNA-encoded library. This is a novel approach that will enable the screening of billions of small molecules in a short period of time and introduce diversity into the potential tracers in development. Once the team has identified potential leads, they plan to begin development and validation, including in postmortem tissue and patient-matched stem-cell models.
Anthony Roecker, PhD, Robert Drolet, PhD, and Eric Hostetler, PhD and a team at Merck have discovered several potential alpha-synuclein imaging agents. With this funding, the investigators will pursue a novel medicinal chemistry plan to develop and optimize those lead candidates over the next two years. Merck has an experienced PET tracer team that will focus on improving the affinity and selectivity of the potential PET tracers. Once this phase is complete, Merck plans to choose the most promising tracers and initiate human testing.
The three winning teams were awarded a combined $8.5 million dollars. The team that makes the most progress during the next two years on an imaging tracer will be awarded an additional $1.5 million to continue work to bring its tool to fruition.
The Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition builds on MJFF’s longstanding support of alpha-synuclein tracer research. We have supported this area of research for more than a decade by building a consortium of industry and academic partners and through millions in research grants. Though Parkinson’s research has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, MJFF is committed to our mission and to accelerating research progress.
To learn more about the winners of the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition, read our media release.