XPRIZE proposed to inspire Alzheimer’s research

Leuthardt team’s passionate pitch takes top honor

Washington University neurosurgeon Eric Leuthardt, left, and preventive medicine expert Dean Ornish make their pitch for Alzheimer’s to be the focus of a new XPRIZE, a financial award designed to increase the interest of researchers in taking on daunting new challenges.

XPRIZE, which in 2004 awarded $10 million for the first privately built, manned spacecraft launched into space twice in two weeks, may soon be setting its sights on effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

XPRIZE hopes to create a new Alzheimer’s XPRIZE to inspire the ingenuity of researchers and increase their interest in taking on the daunting task of stopping the disease.

An Alzheimer’s prize was proposed by a team of experts co-directed by Eric C. Leuthardt, MD, associate professor of neurological surgery and biomedical engineering at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and Dean Ornish, MD, founder and president of the
nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and clinical professor
of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

The team’s proposal to tackle Alzheimer’s won a recent XPRIZE “Visioneering” workshop that drew proposals on topics of importance to society.

“The presentation by Dr. Ornish and Dr. Leuthardt, and the vote of support by the Visioneering attendees, has certainly reaffirmed what we at XPRIZE deeply believe – that Alzheimer’s is one of humanity’s grandest challenges and that an innovative solution is urgently required,” said Eileen Bartholomew, vice president of Prize Development at XPRIZE. “We will continue to explore how an XPRIZE might catalyze such a solution.”


Leuthardt, who treats patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said: “Basically, XPRIZEs are about making the impossible possible. They’re about giving innovators the incentive to achieve new breakthroughs that benefit society.”

A similar contest, known as the Orteig Prize, inspired Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, Leuthardt noted, and that led to the start of commercial air travel a short time later.

At XPRIZE’s annual Visioneering event, more than 100 pioneering scientists, inventors, engineers, artists, philanthropists and business leaders met to propose new XPRIZE concepts.

The attendees are divided into teams and assigned an area of research within which they create an XPRIZE proposal. The team led by Leuthardt and Ornish was given the topic of aging.

Noting that an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease is on its way, the team compared the potential crisis to a meteor in space lined up to strike the Earth.

“Populations are growing older around the world, and Alzheimer’s risk increases significantly with age,” Leuthardt said. “This will affect not only the elderly but also their families and loved ones, and it will have devastating emotional and economic consequences.”

The details of what qualifies as a cure for Alzheimer’s would be established if the foundation raises funds for the prize. As in other XPRIZEs, the winners of the award would retain the intellectual property rights for their breakthrough.

“I think everyone is touched or will soon be touched by Alzheimer’s,” Leuthardt said. “I think that’s part of the reason why our proposal won — everybody in the audience had a family member affected by Alzheimer’s or knew someone with a family member affected by this disorder.”

Other XPRIZEs include or have included a prize for the first “tricorder” (a handheld device that can non-invasively diagnose 15 health conditions like the tricorders featured on Star Trek); a prize for the first group to sequence the DNA of 100 100-year-olds for identification of genetic factors linked to extended lifespans; and a prize for the first privately funded team to send a lander to the moon.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.