The Charleston Conference on Alzheimer's Disease
Held February 28-March 2, 2013, the very weekend that sequestration went into effect, the Charleston Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease (CCAD), organized and chaired by Joseph A. Helpern, PhD, SmartState™ Endowed Chair in Brain Imaging and Director of the Center for Biomedical Imaging at MUSC, tested a new model for funding high-risk, high-reward projects to spur basic science research into Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and the translation of promising strategies into humans. The conference was funded by philanthropist Carole Pittelman, who, frustrated by the slow pace of clinical advances for AD, sought to jump start research by awarding four very promising young investigators $50,000 each for a novel, one-year project that would likely be considered too high risk for traditional funding mechanisms.
Even before sequestration, which could trim as much as $1.6 billion from the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this year, funding had been historically tight. Whereas NIH once awarded funding to the top 25% of grant applications, that number has now dropped to less than 10% at many institutes and as low as 5% at others. The scarcity of grant funding, exacerbated by the sequestration, jeopardizes the ability of many young investigators to stay in science as both their research and their salaries are contingent on such grants. America could lose a generation of scientists, slowing progress toward the cure of many diseases and threatening its status as the world leader in scientific innovation.
Because NIH has to justify a return on its research dollar in these fiscally challenging times, it conservatively favors established investigators and incremental advances to already initiated projects. Consequently, young investigators have fewer opportunities to find support for high-risk, high-reward research that explores unusual ideas and could lead to radically different approaches to curing AD.
To earn an invitation to CCAD, young investigators wrote an essay answering the following question: “What changes would you make to the standard paradigm of how research is traditionally conducted and funded?” These essays were reviewed by the CCAD Scientific Board, composed of world experts in AD research. The 15 applicants providing the most insightful answers were invited to prepare grant proposals for a one-year project and to travel to Charleston to present them to their peers and the CCAD Scientific Board. Proposals were scored by a NIH-style study section that included both senior and junior investigators.
The four young investigators with the highest scores were awarded $50,000 each to pursue their one-year projects. All CCAD junior investigators benefited from the chance to collaborate with their equally innovative peers from other disciplines.