Inflazome Funding From The Michael J. Fox Foundation Underlines Foundation Involvement in Research

hand passing burlap money bags to another person's hand

Foundations increasingly play a large role in funding basic science both domestically and internationally. Recently, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research granted Dublin and Cambridge, UK-based Inflazome more than $1 million. The money will be used to fund the development of an NLRP3-specific Positron Emission Tomography (PET) tracer that allows non-invasive imaging of inflammasome-driven brain inflammation.

Inflammasomes, the company indicates, create signals that stimulate immune cells to fight infections. Under normal circumstances, this is beneficial. But when the immune system is activated without control, the inflammation is linked to a broad range of disease, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis and various cardiovascular conditions.

Inflazome focuses on developing ways of blocking inflammasome signaling to eliminate unwanted inflammation. The NLPR3 inflammasome is believed to drive chronic inflammation linked to many neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s Disease. The PET tracer is designed to determine what dosages are needed for clinical trials.

“The Michael J. Fox Foundation is a fantastic organization with a passionate commitment to new science, science translation and candidate therapies for Parkinson’s,” stated Matt Cooper, Inflazome’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “We are fully aligned in our shared goal to help patients with Parkinson’s and other debilitating neurodegenerative diseases, for which there are inadequate therapies and no cures. Their support will help us advance and hopefully validate our disruptive approach to diagnose and then treat patients by focusing on neuroinflammation.”

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U.S. Foundations Fund International Research

The MJFF is a prominent example of the influence foundations are having on biopharma research. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also another prominent example. The Council on Foundations and the Foundation Center released a five-year study in late-2018 titled, The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations: 2011-2015. The report indicated that in 2015, grant-making by U.S. foundations to charities outside the U.S. hit an all-time high of $9.3 billion, compared to $2.1 billion in 2002.

In that period, over half of all international foundation donations was made by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, donating $17.9 billion out of $35.4 billion. Of those, Sub-Saharan Africa received the most funding by U.S. foundations, making up 25 percent of the total grand dollars during that five-year period.

Other major U.S. foundations making international grants included the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Foundation to Promote Open Society, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

In 2016, Priscilla Chan and her husband, Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The two pledged $3 billion towards basic science research over the next 10 years. The CZI has the ambitious goal of seeing all diseases cured, prevented or managed by the end of the century. Then they went a step further, pledging $600 million to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, an independent research center that will coordinate activities between researchers at UCSF, UC Berkeley and Stanford University.

The report found that the majority of grants made by the foundations were project-focused (65.2%). The next largest was Research & Evaluation, with 38.7 percent. Policy, Advocacy & Systems Reform received 26.7 percent of foundation grants, General Support (17.7%) and Capacity Building & Technical Assistance (10.6%). Interestingly, 88 percent of foundation grants were channeled through intermediaries, meaning groups that re-grant money to other organizations, while only 12 percent went directly to organizations based in the country where the programs were implemented.

An Alternative to Federal Funding

In a 2017 article, The Scientist noted, “One attribute unites the major players on the philanthropic science-funding scene: they all serve as alternatives to the traditional model of securing federal funding—and could prove especially valuable for life scientists looking to fuel innovative and risky research.”

And although all of the foundations mentioned above provide grants for many worthy causes, the Gates Foundation, the MJFF and the CZI have basic scientific research very much at the heart of their funding. They each have their individual focus: The Gates Foundation tends to focus on malaria and other infectious diseases that strike hardest in the developing world; MJFF, obviously, focuses on Parkinson’s Disease; the CZI has broader goals, but is still very focused on health issues and medicine.

As The Scientist pointed out, these organizations offer researchers alternatives to the traditional federal funding models, and in particular, can be valuable to life scientists doing innovative and potentially risky research. “The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies demonstrate an almost innate wariness of uncertain outcomes, says Gerald Fischbach, Distinguished Scientist and Fellow at the Simons Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds basic science. In fact, many government/federal agencies now require that scientists state in their proposals how their research will be ‘transformational.’ This push comes from continued fiscal belt-tightening that limits the number of applicants government science agencies, especially the NIH, can fund, Fischbach notes. ‘When the study sections can give out from two to five grants each cycle out of 150 [applications], there’s a real bias against risky research.”

Private foundations, however, can use longer timelines for projects. Fischbach, who previous to working with the Simons Foundation, was director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. He said during his tenure there, almost every new grant the NINDS funded had developed preliminary data from a private source.

Another example, this coming at least partly out of CZI, is the Human Cell Atlas. The project, launched in late 2016, is designed to characterize and explore every cell type in the human body. Since there are 37 trillion cells in the human body, there are a lot of different types, and the project is expected to take decades and is being conducted by researchers all around the world. As The Scientist notes, “Given its massive scale, it likely would not have been possible without support from private funding organizations—namely, grants and cooperation from the CZI for 38 pilot projects.”

One glaring exception to that statement, it could be argued, is The Human Genome Project, launched in 2003 and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the NIH. It was helped along, if that’s the right word, by competition from Celera Corporation. Much of the work was conducted by The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, which included hundreds of scientists at 20 sequencing centers in China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan and the U.S.

But a publicly-funded project of that size and scope is unusual—the original project budget was $3 billion over 15 years, but actually cost about $2.7 billion over 13 years.

How Do Private Foundations Fit In?

The Human Cell Atlas isn’t only funded by CZI. There are other private sources as well as governmental support. And, as many have noted, the goal of private foundation funding isn’t to replace government dollars, but to be more synergistic. In 2016, according to the Science Philanthropy Alliance, private sources gave about $2.3 billion to basic science, while federal science agencies contributed about $40 billion. Marc Kastner, president of the alliance, told The Scientist, “There’s no way that philanthropic funding can compete with federal funding.”

But it can definitely fill in gaps, particularly when government budgets wax and wane depending on administration. And in some ways, science research budgets can become something of a bouncing ball between various branches of the federal government. It was recently noted that the NIH budget was up 14 percent during the two years of the Trump Administration, but that’s largely despite Trump, not because of him. In Trump’s first budget year, he promised deep cuts in NIH funding. But the Senate Appropriations Committee felt it was a funding priority and the annual budget increased from $34.3 billion in January 2017 to $39.1 billion for the 2019 fiscal year.

But Trump’s proposed budget for 2020 cuts that budget back to $35.4 billion, as well as a $1 billion reduction for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The National Cancer Institute would, under Trump’s budget, lose $900 billion from a $5.2 billion budget, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) would lose $750 million from a $4.75 billion budget.

It's possible that the House and Senate will determine that cuts (or increases) should occur in different areas. But it does reinforce the idea that foundations can provide a significant area of funding for researchers.

As Kastner of the Science Philanthropy Alliance told The Scientist two years ago, “I think philanthropy is more important than ever. It’s most important for setting an example for the Congress, for showing the Congress that it’s important to take risks and to take a long-term view when you’re talking about science, and not to look [only] for short-term applications.”

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