Pioneering a Breakthrough in Treating Parkinson’s Disease

In partnership with The Michael J. Fox Foundation—a world leader in the effort to eliminate Parkinson’s disease—Griffin Catalyst provided critical funding for a global competition to accelerate the next generation of Parkinson’s treatment. Researchers raced to develop a new way to visualize the alpha-synuclein protein closely associated with the disease that has the potential to improve both diagnosis and treatment for Parkinson’s patients.
At the 2022 International Conference on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases in Barcelona, Spain, AC Immune—one of the three finalists in the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition—presented the world’s first non-invasive images of pathological alpha-synuclein in the human brain, acquired with its pioneering Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Tracer technology.
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Ruben Smith and Oskar Hansson at Skane University
Key Takeaways
  • With a $7.5 million leadership gift, Griffin Catalyst partnered with The Michael J. Fox Foundation to fund a competition that drove the development of an imaging tracer to visualize a key protein found in the brains of people living with Parkinson's disease.
  • The neuroimaging allows scientists, for the first time, to directly observe the success of new medications— many of which are now in development—to slow or reduce the effects of Parkinson’s.
  • On March 28, 2023, the competition announced the winner: Merck, which will receive an additional $1.5 million to begin testing its new neuroimaging technique in humans. Two other finalists have also developed tracers that will undergo further testing and human trials.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has led the charge in advancing ground-breaking research in this field over the past twenty years. I hope this partnership with the Foundation will bring us closer to a cure for the millions of people living with Parkinson’s disease.

As he approached his 30th birthday in the spring of 1991, celebrated film and television star Michael J. Fox began experiencing some minor but mysterious symptoms, “a twitching finger and a sore shoulder”, while at a Florida film premiere.

As his symptoms gradually worsened, Fox discovered that the cause was Parkinson’s, a little-understood neurological disorder that usually manifests itself through resting hand tremors, loss of balance, and difficulty walking.  

In 2000—two years after Fox went public with his diagnosis—the actor founded The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which would become the largest private philanthropic organization focused on Parkinson’s. From the very start, the foundation’s core mission has been advancing scientific research: first to gain a full understanding of Parkinson’s disease—its causes, its underlying biology, its process of unfolding—and then to develop effective medications to lessen its symptoms, slow its progression, and, ultimately, to eliminate it entirely.  Since its start, the foundation has funded more than $1.8 billion in research. 

In 2000, Fox founded The Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has since become the largest private philanthropic organization in the world dedicated to the identification, treatment, and cure of Parkinson’s disease.  Under the leadership of CEO and co-founder Debi Brooks, the foundation has funded thousands of research projects across over 40 countries and continues to inspire hope for millions around the world.

Photo Credit: © Mark Seliger

Ken’s partnership in our pursuit of Parkinson’s imaging biomarkers has led to tremendous progress. His generosity has been a difference-maker to our mission and to our ability to transform research and care.

Among its largest lifetime donors has been Ken Griffin, whose father suffers from the disease. In 2019, Griffin Catalyst partnered with The Michael J. Fox Foundation to fund a potential breakthrough in Parkinson’s research. A $7.5 million gift supported a competition among research groups around the world to, for the first time, visualize the alpha-synuclein protein in people living with Parkinson’s.    

Alpha-synuclein, found in nearly all six million people with Parkinson’s, is a misfolded protein located in certain parts of the brain. Scientists believe it’s an important key to the pathology of the disease.  

We still have so much to learn about the pathology of Parkinson’s. It’s long been known that alpha-synuclein is the hallmark protein that clumps in the brain of people with the disease, but figuring out exactly what alpha-synuclein does is not fully understood. It’s a seminal target, but we need better tools to chase after it.

A brain-scan image of the alpha-synuclein protein, which has been identified in nearly all patients with Parkinson’s and is regarded as a critical component in the development and progression of the disease.
Photo Credit: UCFS via Getty

Up to that point, the alpha-synuclein protein had only been identified through the postmortem examination of Parkinson’s patients. An essential first step, for Griffin and others this was not good enough to help people in time to improve their lives. The competition, named the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition, posed the question: might it be possible to visualize the alpha-synuclein protein in living Parkinson’s patients and observe the effects of novel therapeutic interventions—many of which are currently in trials?  

A new way for scientists to actually see if a new medication is engaging—and reducing—the sticky protein would, in the words of Debi Brooks, be a “game changer.”   

The potential of this tracer is immense. Instead of relying on symptoms to diagnose Parkinson’s, physicians could look at what is happening in the brain in real-time, paving the way for earlier diagnosis. And researchers developing therapies to target alpha-synuclein will be able to see how well their drug is working. An alpha-synuclein imaging tracer would increase the odds of success for therapies in trials today.

A medical research laboratory at AC Immune, the Swiss research company that, along with New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. and the Boston-based hospital network Mass General Brigham, were the three finalists in the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition. 
Photo Credit: AC Immune

In July 2020, it was announced that three finalists—AC Immune, Mass General Brigham, and Merck—would receive funding. Over the next three years, all three began to show promising results, including the imaging by AC Immune of alpha-synuclein in a living brain for the first time—not precisely for Parkinson’s, but for a related condition called MSA, or multiple systems atrophy.  

Just years later, in March 2023, The Michael J. Fox Foundation and Griffin Catalyst announced the winner of the competition. A team of scientific advisors determined that of the three finalists, Merck had made the most progress and was awarded $1.5 million in support of the next critical phase: to begin testing the newly developed imaging tracer for Parkinson’s disease in humans. All three finalist teams have developed tracers that will undergo further testing and human trials.  

The announcement represents a major step in developing what may prove to be the essential tool for studying the effects of new medications—medications that, in turn, might begin to make Michael J. Fox’s long-held dream of a world without Parkinson’s a reality.


Estimated number of people living with Parkinson’s disease around the world 


Funding from Griffin Catalyst for the Ken Griffin Alpha-synuclein Imaging Competition, allowing researchers to visualize a crucial protein in patients living with Parkinson’s

To carry off this kind of thing, you need a significant leadership gift, and it was fantastic that Ken Griffin stepped in. It was timely, significant, and motivating.