Barbara Tate, a neuroscientist with a distinguished history of medical research, has some bold new theories about the causes of and cures for dementia. And she and her colleagues have equally bold thinking on how to test their theories. But conducting the research takes lots of cash, which their year-old company, Tiaki Therapeutics in Cambridge, Mass., doesn’t have on its own.
Tiaki exists today for one reason: It is supported by the Dementia Discovery Fund (DDF). This London investment fund was set up in October 2015 to provide money to small companies seeking to discover novel therapies to stop or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia — a crippling neurological condition that so far has proven resistant to anything but temporary treatments for individual symptoms.
The DDF just hit an important milestone: reaching its funding target of $350 million, thanks largely to a $60 million investment from AARP announced in June. Its original target cap was set at nearly $200 million. “We raised the cap because of the huge interest in what we’re doing, and the possibility for us to do more,” explains Kate Bingham, managing partner of SV Health Investors, the health care venture capital fund selected to run the DDF.
Why there’s so much interest is no mystery. About 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and that number is expected to grow to 131.5 million by 2050. The cost of treating dementia worldwide hit an estimated $818 billion in 2015 and is rising by nearly 16 percent annually. Any breakthrough dementia drugs would provide hope to patients around the world — and would be worth billions of dollars. These “could be the biggest drugs in the world,” Bingham says.
That’s why companies such as Tiaki are of such interest to the DDF. Tiaki focuses on microglial cells, which play several roles in keeping the central nervous system healthy. For instance, these cells constantly survey for signs of inflammation, explains Tate, the company’s acting CEO. If it’s detected, microglial cells drop all their other chores to fight it off. But in some older people, once the inflammation clears, the microglia do not all fully revert to other duties. That, Tiaki’s scientists believe, may be a cause of dementia.
To test this theory, Tiaki has developed a “brain-in-a-dish,” an array of all brain cells, including microglia, that mimic human gray matter. Chemicals can be tested in the array to find drugs than can spark processes that coax microglia back to being fully functional after the inflammation is gone.