Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as many as five million Americans were living with it in 2014. Scientists have conducted a lot of research on the disease, but there’s still no simple explanation for it. But James Truchard wants to change that. Truchard is former president and CEO of the multi-billion-dollar Austin-based tech company, National Instruments. He recently gave $5 million to the University of Texas at San Antonio College of Sciences for the new Oskar Fischer Project; the money will be divvied among the scientists who can sufficiently explain what causes Alzheimer’s.
Truchard says the idea for the prize money came to him after witnessing how his first wife lost her memory and struggled with her mental health over a period of 18 years, before she eventually died from an aneurysm.
“The last five years [of her life] was very much like Alzheimer’s. And we know that Alzheimer’s is a tremendous challenge for the caregivers, the spouses, and a disease which we’ve made no progress in the last 111 years,” Truchard says. “We need to move the needle, and I’m hoping to find somebody who can give us a better starting point in understanding Alzheimer’s.”
Truchard says 130,000 scientific papers on Alzheimer’s have been published, but he says all of that research focuses on narrow aspects of the disease and brain science. He wants someone to comb through that literature and put it all together in order to clearly define what the disease is.
“Just like someone like Einstein did in creating the theory of general relativity or Darwin did in looking at evolution,” Truchard says.
He says that can be done best by aggregating all the research that has been done over the last century.
“It probably needs aggregation. We have to look at a big picture as well as the very fine details,” Truchard says.
Truchard says his experience heading up a large corporation gives him a different perspective on how to solve big scientific problems. For one thing, he says businesses have a fundamental responsibility to make money, which means they can take a pragmatic approach to problem-solving; academics, on the other hand, are hindered by constantly having to come up with new research and new theories in order to get published.
“It may be very difficult to publish an explanation that doesn’t involve new, original research,” Truchard says. “Whereas a business, you don’t worry about whether it’s original or not, you just worry about whether you can make money.”
The top prize for one scientist will be $2 million; Truchard says UTSA will take applications starting in February 2019, and researchers accepted into the project will have two years to conduct their research.
“We’re hoping we can find some genius, someone that can do like Einstein did, and come up with the right answer. They may be famous, they may be somebody we’ve never heard of before. There are no rules,” Truchard says.
Written by Caroline Covington.
Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.