A challenge for Alzheimer’s innovation
Business leader fuels global, multimillion-dollar Oskar Fischer Project
SAN ANTONIO—Alzheimer’s disease has vexed researchers and clinicians for years, leaving them with plenty of questions and clues but precious little in the way of answers or successful paths toward treatment. To help remedy that, U.S. businessman James Truchard has given a $5-million gift to the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) College of Sciences to establish the Oskar Fischer Project—a move announced at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in early November.
Truchard, the retired president and CEO of tech company National Instruments, presented the idea of the Oskar Fischer Project with an eye toward engaging the brightest minds in the world to work on expanding the understanding of and the explanations for Alzheimer’s disease. The challenge will award up to $4 million in Oskar Fischer Prizes, including a grand prize of $2 million, two second place prizes of $500,000 each and four third place prizes of $250,000 each. Collectively, the monetary awards are the world’s largest prizes of their kind, according to UTSA.
The name of the project comes from Truchard’s personal research that introduced him to the work of the late Oskar Fischer, a Jewish pioneer in neuroscience who studied dementia at the same time as Alois Alzheimer did. In 1900, Fischer began working at Charles University’s German University, based in Prague, and his research led to the identification of senile plaques—which were then referred to as neuritic plaques—the lesions which continue to be considered a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fischer hypothesized that the plaques were associated with presbyophrenia, then characterized as a form of senile dementia marked by memory loss, memory distortions and disorientation. He published on 12 patients with plaques and tangles, protein strands that appear during Alzheimer’s disease, in 1907, the same year that Alzheimer published on one patient with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Fischer remained at the German University until he was removed in 1939. Two years later, he was sent to Theresienstadt in Terezín, a waystation for Auschwitz and Treblinka. He died in 1942, unable to survive the harsh conditions of the concentration camp.
“A century has passed since Oskar Fischer’s seminal work, and tens of billions have been spent around the world on research and potential cures. Over 130,000 research papers have been published and yet no definitive explanation and cure for Alzheimer’s has been found,” said Truchard. “We need to look at Alzheimer’s as a big complex puzzle with a missing piece. We need a brilliant individual who can take all of the pieces and consider what each offers, and then develop one explanation that fits because it pulls all of the pieces together and makes the puzzle whole.”
“The Oskar Fischer Project will take a new systems approach to the research on Alzheimer’s, building on the work Oskar Fischer started over a century ago,” added George Perry, chief scientist of the UTSA Brain Health Consortium. “Jim Truchard’s generous gift will create an international forum to assess that work and bring forward an explanation that will advance society’s understanding of the disease.”
UTSA, which positions itself as “a world leader in brain health research,” will incubate the two-year challenge. In the UTSA Brain Health Consortium, nearly 40 scientists are already engaged in research on brain mechanisms and therapeutics. The university’s researchers have expertise in neurodegenerative disease, brain circuits and electrical signaling, traumatic brain injury, regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies, medicinal chemistry and drug design, neuroinflammation and psychology.
“Through Jim Truchard’s support, the Oskar Fischer Project will accelerate our shared mission of unraveling the mysteries of neurodegeneration through engagement with the smartest thinkers around the world,” said UTSA President Taylor Eighmy.
UTSA will work closely with an interdisciplinary committee of outstanding scientists from Texas to award the Oskar Fischer Prizes. The call for proposals will open in February 2019 and will continue through the two-year term of the project.