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Microsoft Founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is doubling down on his commitment to fund Alzheimer’s research with a new initiative through the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Fund. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Alzheimer’s disease is both common and devastating. A predicted 14 million Americans will have the disease by 2050 and it is already the sixth biggest killer in the country.

Despite that, we still have very little understanding of what causes Alzheimer’s, how to treat it or even how to effectively diagnose it.

Investors including Microsoft Founder and philanthropist Bill Gates are hoping to give Alzheimer’s research a kickstart with a new “venture philanthropy” initiative called Diagnostics Accelerator, which will put $30 million behind research into new diagnostics for the disease.

The aim is to diagnose those with Alzheimer’s earlier in the disease’s progression, potentially before they show obvious symptoms. Little is known about the early stages of the disease, but recent research shows that treatment during that time may be the only way to stop or slow its progression.

“We need a better way of diagnosing Alzheimer’s–like a simple blood test or eye exam–before we’re able to slow the progression of the disease,” Gates wrote in a Gates Notes blog post about his involvement in the project.

Diagnostics Accelerator is led by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Fund (ADDF) and will fund research into diagnostics that can detect Alzheimer’s much sooner than current tests. The $30 million in initial investment comes from Gates,  Estée Lauder Chairperson and ADDF Co-founder Leonard Lauder, the Dolby family and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, in addition to other unnamed backers.

Today, there is no definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s while a patient is alive. The disease is normally diagnosed after a patient starts showing symptoms of cognitive decline, and involves a cognitive test and a series of scans and blood tests that rule out other possible diseases. Only an autopsy can diagnose the disease for certain.

But recent research shows that Alzheimer’s starts changing the brain far before the classic symptoms start showing.

“The more we understand about Alzheimer’s, the clearer it becomes that the disease begins much earlier than we previously thought. 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 said.

Diagnosing patients much earlier would help scientists understand the disease better and also lead to early interventions that could treat the disease more effectively — but while there is promising research being done in this area, there is very little market demand to bring a product to patients.

Gates said the goal of the Diagnostics Accelerator is to give those promising ideas resources to grow into potential products, without concern for attracting venture capital or immediate revenue.

Bill Gates Sr. and Jr. at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Gates Jr.’s interest in funding Alzheimer’s research stems from his father’s diagnosis with the disease. (Photo from Gates family.)

“My hope is that this investment builds a bridge from academic research to a reliable, affordable, and accessible diagnostic,” Gates said. “I expect to see lots of new players come to the table, who have innovative new ideas but might not have previously had the resources to explore them.”

He added that any profit the backers make from their investments will go back into the fund.

Gates first jumped into Alzheimer’s work in November, when he committed to putting $100 million into research and startups working to combat the disease. A few months later, Gates revealed that his father, Bill Gates Sr., has the disease and that he himself is at high risk for developing it later in life.

In his blog post announcing the new initiative Tuesday, Gates said the response from others with loved ones battling the disease has had a great impact on him.

“So many of you have shared your personal experiences with me, both in person and online,” Gates wrote. “It helps to hear from others who are going through the same thing.”

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