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Team takes new approach in the study of Alzheimer's

Alyson War, Houston Chronicle
Updated 4:03 pm, Friday, March 8, 2013

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  • The Neurodegeneration Consortium team of investigators includes: (seated, left to right) Joanna Jankowsky, Hui Zheng, Lynda Chin, Li-Huei Tsai and Juan Botas; (standing, left to right) Ronald DePinho, Ming-Kuei Jang, Giulio Draetta, Hugo Bellen and Huda Zoghbi. Not pictured: Philip Jones. Photo: John Everett
    The Neurodegeneration Consortium team of investigators includes: (seated, left to right) Joanna Jankowsky, Hui Zheng, Lynda Chin, Li-Huei Tsai and Juan Botas; (standing, left to right) Ronald DePinho, Ming-Kuei Jang, Giulio Draetta, Hugo Bellen and Huda Zoghbi. Not pictured: Philip Jones. Photo: John Everett

 

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With the help of a $25 million grant, some top researchers in the field are putting their heads together to solve the Alzheimer's problem. And they're determined not to be just another research group.

Last fall, the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation gave $25 million to fund a new Neurodegeneration Consortium. The group includes scientists at three institutions - two of them local: the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The team will take a new approach to studying the disease, said Ronald DePinho, president of M.D. Anderson.

Right now, he said, the field of Alzheimer's research is focused primarily on a single theory about what causes the disease: the "amyloid hypothesis," which focuses on amyloid, a protein that accumulates in organs and leads to the loss of neurons. Because researchers know that amyloid is linked to neurodegenerative diseases, there's been little funding or support for exploring other possible factors.

The new consortium will buck that trend, DePinho said, and approach the problem with an "unbiased view of what might be causing Alzheimer's."

"We do believe the amyloid theory is important," he said. "We just believe if you only go after that, it's not going to be enough."

The team of investigators wasn't organized just to write papers, DePinho said. "We want to convert discovery into things that matter for patients."

That means - they hope - using what they learn to deliver new drugs, better diagnostics and new ideas for improving patients' quality of life.

One of the consortium's first efforts is a drug discovery project focused on protecting neurons, said Ming-Kuei Jang. Jang, one of the consortium's leaders, is associate director of neurobiology at M.D. Anderson's Institute for Applied Cancer Science.

Instead of trying to prevent Alzheimer's, he said, this project focuses on helping neurons withstand the damage it causes. That means patients with Alzheimer's - or with other neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS and Parkinson's - could someday take a drug that would delay the progression of their disease.

"We're not reversing the course of the disease, but we might be able to stop the disease at the time where you start the therapy," Jang said.

It will be years before any such drug is on the market - but it's a fresh approach to treating a disease that's projected to become a crisis.

Funding for neurodegenerative diseases has never been more crucial, DePinho said. In the United States, 5.4 million people are living with Alzheimer's - and that's going to increase in the coming years, he said, because more people are living longer.After the age of 60, the incidence of age-related disease doubles every five years, DePinho said. A person in his 80s has a 45 percent chance of having Alzheimer's. The cost of care and treatment is going to become a crisis, especially as Baby Boomers reach their 70s and 80s. By 2025, the disease is likely to cost the U.S. $1 trillion a year in today's dollars.

"The world is on a collision course that is essentially an unsustainable situation," DePinho said.

To prevent that, he said, scientists need to do all they can to find a cure.

"We need to use the power of genetics, computational science, genetic engineering, all of the things that have led to a boon in cancer research and knowledge," he said, and take the same approach to Alzheimer's - to "hit the reset button and ask what is going on with the disease."