Billionaire Ken Griffin, Michael J. Fox Foundation stage $10M competition for 'game-changing' Parkinson's research

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is holding a $10 million competition to spur development of a critical research tool for the disease.

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Funded in part through a $7.5 million gift from the founder of the Chicago-based investment firm Citadel, Ken Griffin, the program offers a cash incentive for researchers to devise a tracer compound that can bind to a protein in the brain known as alpha-synuclein and illuminate its volume and location on a brain scan.

According to the foundation, the majority of the 6 million people living with Parkinson's worldwide have clumps of alpha-synuclein in their brain, where's it's believed to harm cells and result in symptoms of the disease.

“Providing researchers and clinicians with the ability to detect and monitor the disease would be revolutionary for the field and, most importantly, for patients,” says foundation CEO Todd Sherer. The protein clumps are now visible only through post-mortem tissue analysis, and the ability to see them would open new avenues in research on the disease.

Fox, who became a star with the 1980s TV series "Family Ties," then starred in movies from "The Secret of My Success" to "Doc Hollywood" -- was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991, at age 29, and publicly disclosed it some seven years later.

The organization he founded has since developed into the world's largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's research, with a comittment to both accelerating a cure for the disease as well as improving therapies for those living with the condition today.

The group "has led the charge in advancing ground-breaking research in this field over the past 20 years,” Griffin said in a statement. “I hope this partnership with the foundation will bring us closer to a cure.”

The organization plans to put a total of $8.5 million toward as many as three winning research teams working on the tool, with an extra $1.5 million to the group that makes the most progress in two years or less.

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Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder that occurs when brain cells that make dopamine, a chemical that coordinates movement, stop working or die.

It is referred to as a movement disorder because it can cause tremor, slowness, stiffness and walking and balance problems. Its symptoms only worsen over time.

According to the foundation, Parkinson’s affects nearly 1 million people in the United States and more than 6 million people worldwide.