The American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF), a nonprofit organization that funds ground-breaking, early-stage research on Alzheimer’s disease, has awarded 22 new research grants, totaling more than $3.6 million, to scientists on the cutting edge of discoveries about the disease that affects over five million Americans.
“Only through research can we find ways to prevent or treat this terrible disease that threatens to harm our loved ones and bankrupt our families and our health care system,” said Stacy Pagos Haller, AHAF president and CEO. “That’s why AHAF is committed to supporting bold ideas and investing in the most compelling and game-changing research.”
One newly funded project will carefully scrutinize a major Alzheimer’s disease discovery announced in 2012—also AHAF-funded—that damaging “tau” proteins spread cell-to-cell in the brain. The project’s meticulous inspection of exactly how and which harmful proteins develop and spread within the brain could bring medical science closer to understanding the phases of, and thus treating, Alzheimer’s disease.
Other grant recipients will be studying existing FDA-approved diabetes and cancer drugs for their potential in treating Alzheimer’s disease. If research on such “repurposed” drugs proves successful, it could present a powerful opportunity to rapidly translate the work to clinical practice.
Other topics in the 22 funded projects include early diagnosis, drug targets and drug discoveries. Some highlights include:
Can a Diabetes Drug Fight Alzheimer’s Disease as Well?
Steven E. Arnold, M.D, of the University of Pennsylvania, will conduct a phase II clinical trial to determine if a common anti-diabetes drug has potential for treating or preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Other research previously funded by AHAF has highlighted the diabetes/Alzheimer’s connection, recently linking diabetes in the elderly to cognitive decline. Arnold’s study will examine the potential role of glucophage (brand name Metformin), the most widely prescribed diabetes medication in the U.S., in making cells in the Alzheimer’s disease brain more sensitive to insulin—and thus healthier.
Testing a Natural Substance’s Effect on the Nervous System
The role of the common nutritional supplement glutamine as a novel treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is the subject of research by Rutgers University scientist Karl Herrup, Ph.D. Glutamine is naturally produced by cells and is essential to the communication among nerve cells as well as other workings of the body. Long prescribed for lung cancer, bowel surgery, and other conditions including sepsis, glutamine has never been tested as a treatment for nervous system diseases. Herrup shows that in the Alzheimer’s disease brain, glutamine levels drop. He will examine whether providing extra glutamine to mice would protect nerve cells and might indicate methods of reducing side effects of other drugs.
Charting the Transfer of Harmful Tau Protein
Alzheimer’s research made news in February when two independent teams of scientists, one of them AHAF-funded, announced a discovery on how misshapen tau proteins proliferate in the brain. The team’s finding—that the proteins spread cell-to-cell—now allows scientists to focus on ways to target and stop this spread. Although the results have generated much press, confirmation of the observation has been a tremendous technical hurdle. Aiming to solve that problem is Jessica Wu, Ph.D., of Columbia University. She developed a way to test the tau protein’s potential ability to transfer to and damage neighboring cells, eliminating many of the other factors that have confounded prior tests. By using microscopic chambers that allow growth and testing of isolated pairs of neurons, Wu can study the effect of a single sick neuron on a single neighboring cell. Such a finding would illuminate a new class of cellular processes that might be harnessed to prevent the spread of Alzheimer’s disease within a person’s brain.
As exciting as the new research is, AHAF officials caution that if Alzheimer’s disease is to be eradicated, more research funding is needed. There must be a greater public-private partnership.
“These are difficult times for the Alzheimer’s disease research community,” said Guy Eakin, AHAF vice president of scientific affairs. “Finding government funding is tough now, and more researchers are looking to private funding sources like AHAF than ever before. But we can’t meet all the need. We received 332 grant proposals, involving 700 scientists at 213 organizations. The projects we funded are impressive, but many promising proposals had to be declined.”
Haller added, “To date, AHAF has awarded more than $78 million to researchers studying Alzheimer’s disease, including the early work of two Nobel Prize-winning scientists. But nothing less than a national commitment to Alzheimer’s disease research funding will crack the code of this disease.”
Haller cited as progress recent actions on Capitol Hill and in the White House. The executive branch is implementing a National Alzheimer’s Plan, required under legislation passed by Congress, with a goal of preventing or treating the disease by the year 2025. A bipartisan group in Congress has also unveiled the Spending Reductions through Innovations in Therapies (SPRINT) Act, intended to spur public and private research funding.
With the addition of these 22 new grants, AHAF is now funding 54 Alzheimer’s disease research projects worldwide.