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Pfizer asks Akili: Can a video game really diagnose Alzheimer's?

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When it comes to Alzheimer's research, success stories are few and far between. Akili Interactive Labs wants to try a different approach: The Boston-based startup recently signed a deal with Pfizer ($PFE) to see if its mobile video game platform can help diagnose early signs of Alzheimer's.

Under the agreement, Pfizer will enroll 100 healthy patients with and without Alzheimer's-tied amyloid proteins in their brains. Subjects will use Akili's video game app "Project:EVO" for one month, and researchers will measure their cognitive function at the beginning and end of the trial. In particular, the mobile video game will test cognitive interference, or how individuals respond to distractions and interruptions. The goal of the study is to see how well Akili's game can differentiate between the two populations. If it works out, a patient's performance in the app could serve as a biomarker in future clinical trials on Alzheimer's, Pfizer said.

"This partnership is another example of Pfizer's commitment to embracing innovative technologies that have the potential to further research into neuroscience diseases," said Michael Ehlers, senior vice president and chief scientific officer of the neuroscience research unit at Pfizer, in a statement. "A tool that enables cognitive monitoring for the selection and assessment of clinical trial patients has the potential to be an important advance in Alzheimer's research and beyond."

Up to this point, Alzheimer's research has largely concentrated on amyloid beta protein. Scientists hypothesized that the toxic protein accumulates in the brain, causing memory loss and a decrease in cognitive function. But after a series of failures in late-stage amyloid beta therapy from big pharma names like Eli Lilly ($LLY) and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), research moved toward tau theory. Supporters say the knotty protein is the culprit behind the mysterious disease, and biotech companies and investors have started to take a closer look. German billionaire AG Dietmar Hopp recently jumped on the bandwagon with a multi-million-dollar investment to fund research for AC Immune's therapeutic tau vaccine.

Bottom line: the true cause of the disease remains a mystery. Akili proposes an innovative solution to a stubborn problem, but can a video game have an impact on Alzheimer's research?

The company has made significant headway developing its mobile app. Akili originally developed the app in 2012 based on research that showed playing video games could strengthen the brain's visual and motor functions. Technology for the mobile platform originated at the University of California, San Francisco lab of Dr. Adam Gazzaley, co-founder and chief science advisor at Akili. The game was designed to treat ADHD and provide an alternative to drugs like Adderall and Ritalin.

Akili plans to file the mobile app with the FDA, and, if approved, the game would be the first therapeutic app cleared in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the company continues to garner funding for its innovative technologies. In the last year, Akili brought in approximately $7 million in cash and non-dilutive funding equivalents, including its collaboration with Pfizer and an undisclosed investment from Shire Pharmaceuticals, the company said. Akili plans to continue testing its mobile video game app in individuals with impaired executive function, including those with ADHD, Alzheimer's, depression and autism.

It remains to be seen whether the world will remember Akili's contribution to a challenging and crowded field.

- read the release

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