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Michael J. Fox Foundation Announces Winners of the “Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition” to Develop Game-Changing Tool for Parkinson’s Research

  • Key milestone in scientific competition to spur the development of an imaging tracer to track Parkinson’s pathology
  • Three winning teams awarded a combined $8.5M in grants, funded in large part through a leadership gift from philanthropist and Founder and CEO of Citadel Ken Griffin; the team that makes the greatest progress in two years will be awarded an additional $1.5M of funding
  • Program builds on the Foundation’s longstanding commitment to accelerate an imaging tracer, a critical tool for researchers and clinicians

NEW YORK (July 30, 2020) – Today, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF) announced the winners of the “Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition,” a program 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. Three teams — from AC Immune, Mass General Brigham and Merck (known as MSD outside the United States and Canada) — were selected from a competitive pool to receive the grants.

Ken Griffin

The competition, which will award $10 million in total, 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 unique and 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 pathological 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 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 in the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition were awarded a combined $8.5 million dollars. The team that makes the greatest progress during the next two years on an imaging tracer will be awarded an additional $1.5 million to continue work to bring this game-changing tool to fruition.

Foundation’s Longstanding Commitment to Find Elusive Tracer in Parkinson’s Disease
The imaging tracer would be used in a PET scan to visualize alpha-synuclein — a protein that clumps in the brains of nearly all 6 million people worldwide who live with Parkinson’s. Scientists believe this clumping harms cells and results in symptoms of the disease. Today, 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 could accelerate the development of new therapies for Parkinson’s and be an important new diagnostic tool for physicians.

“The potential of this tracer is immense. Instead of relying on symptoms to diagnose Parkinson’s, physicians could look at what is happening in the brain, in real time, paving the way for earlier diagnosis,” explains MJFF CEO Todd Sherer, PhD. “And researchers developing therapies to target alpha-synuclein will be able to see how well their drug is working. An alpha-synuclein imaging tracer would increase the odds of success for therapies in trials today.”

The Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition builds on MJFF’s longstanding support of alpha-synuclein tracer research. In 2011, Jamie Eberling, PhD, vice president of research programs at MJFF, organized a consortium to foster the development of an alpha-synuclein imaging agent, and MJFF has funded this area of research for more than a decade. In 2016, to spur additional development, 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. Today, thanks in large part to MJFF and its partners, numerous teams — in industry and academia — have joined the effort to develop an alpha-synuclein imaging agent.


About The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

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 more than $900 million 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; 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.

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Media Contact:
Allison Boiles
The Michael J. Fox Foundation

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