August 15, 2011
The University of Kansas Medical Center has been awarded a five-year, $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), putting it among an elite group of 29 institutions which have been nationally designated as Alzheimer's Disease Center by the NIH's National Institute on Aging (NIA). Reflecting its new status as a national center of excellence, the program's name will be the University of Kansas Alzheimer's Disease Center.
"Our Alzheimer's program has long been at the forefront of discovery and has achieved significant success in understanding and treating the disease," said Barbara Atkinson, MD, executive vice chancellor at KU Medical Center and executive dean at the KU School of Medicine. "It is extremely gratifying that the NIH now considers our program as one of the best in the nation."
Established in 1984, the NIA's Alzheimer's Disease Center (ADC) program provides resources to its Centers of Excellence and supports ongoing research by encouraging a multidisciplinary approach to studying the causes, progression, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer's disease. ADCs also foster the development of new research approaches.
"The Alzheimer's Disease Centers play a vital and varied role in advancing our understanding of Alzheimer's disease, from developing imaging agents that enable us to track the changes taking place in the brain to identifying the genetic variants associated with the disorder," said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. "We welcome this distinguished group of University of Kansas investigators and clinicians into the program, and we look forward to working closely with them on innovative ways to prevent, delay or treat this devastating neurodegenerative disorder."
Russell Swerdlow, MD, the director of the new KU Alzheimer's Disease Center, said one of KU Medical Center's strengths is its pioneering work on the link between Alzheimer's and brain energy metabolism. Swerdlow's research indicates that mitochondria, the parts of cells that produce much of their energy, are defective in patients with Alzheimer's disease.
"Our studies are showing that brain energy metabolism plays a role in Alzheimer's disease - and perhaps a central role," said Swerdlow. "We think manipulating brain energy metabolism could be a major breakthrough in getting to the root of Alzheimer's."
Most recent research in the field of Alzheimer's has been focused on how to reduce certain proteins, known as amyloid, which form plaque in the brain. Amyloid accumulation in the brain leads to memory impairment. But clinical trials of drugs that slow amyloid production have shown little success in halting the progression of Alzheimer's. While scientists continue to study the link between amyloid and Alzheimer's, some researchers, including those at KU Medical Center, are exploring other possibilities as well.
"People who already have Alzheimer's have not responded as hoped to amyloid-type drugs," said Jeff Burns, MD, co-director of the new KU Alzheimer's Disease Center. "Some researchers are now investigating whether giving these drugs at an earlier age could help prevent Alzheimer's. At KU, we aren't willing to wait another 10 years to see if new clinical trials show anti-amyloid therapies are effective in younger subjects who haven't shown signs of the disease yet. That is why we have been pursuing research around how metabolism and energy affects brain cells."
Swerdlow, Burns and other scientists at KU Medical Center have received international attention for research on how various lifestyle factors, including fitness and physical activity, affect normal aging and Alzheimer's disease. This research is unique in the field, and contributed to the NIH's decision to award KU a Center of Excellence grant.
"We know brain cells need energy to function. We believe it is possible a malfunction in the metabolism of brain cells could lead to the increase of amyloid levels in the brain and the beginnings of Alzheimer's," Swerdlow says. "If we can determine how to better regulate the energy processed by brain cells, we may get to the true cause of the disease."
In establishing the University of Kansas Alzheimer's Disease Center, Drs. Swerdlow and Burns are joined by members of the KU Medical Center and Lawrence campuses. Pat Laubinger, RN, is the Center's executive director. William Brooks, PhD, will oversee a neuroimaging core. Eli Michaelis, MD, PhD, and Mary Lou Michaelis, PhD, will lead a core that conducts molecular and genetic studies. Kathy Newell, MD, is in charge of a neuropathology core. Heather Anderson, MD, oversees education and outreach efforts. Jonathan Mahnken, PhD, maintains the Center's database.