November 04, 2016
By Kay Hawes
|Jeff Burns and Russell Swerdlow|
At the University of Kansas Alzheimer's Disease Center (KU ADC), there's never been a more exciting and hopeful time. New trials, new partnerships and a renewed national designation mean more researchers, more clinical trial participants and, perhaps soon, more ways to treat and prevent Alzheimer's disease.
In October, several high-ranking members of Kansas' political delegation were in attendance as the University of Kansas Medical Center announced that the KU ADC had its national designation renewed for five years by the National Institute on Aging.
A time of celebration
U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, along with Rep. Kevin Yoder, were on hand to hear Douglas Girod, executive vice chancellor of KU Medical Center, announce that the center would have its designation and funding of an estimated $9.0 million through 2021.
The KU ADC is one of only 31 nationally designated centers by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health. Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and there is currently no proven cure or treatment to delay its progression. The grant money and designation will help researchers at KU ADC continue to unravel the mysteries of the disease, which claimed nearly 85,000 American lives in 2013.
"When the NIA first announced in August 2011 that the KU Alzheimer's Disease Center had achieved national designation, we were thrilled, but not surprised," Girod said. "We knew that our Alzheimer's program had long been at the forefront of discovery and had already achieved significant success in understanding and treating this devastating disease."
Russell Swerdlow, M.D., director of the KU ADC, noted that this renewed designation comes with an expanded responsibility to continue to move the field of Alzheimer's research forward, both regionally and nationally.
"We work with a number of partners to advance clinical research and to help lower the barriers for Alzheimer's researchers all across the region," he said.
Jeffrey Burns, M.D., co-director of the KU ADC, points out that the criteria for national designation also include a commitment to basic science, clinical science and clinical care. The KU ADC is specifically focused on the contribution of metabolism to Alzheimer's disease, which means examining how altering metabolism and cell energy, either through drugs or other interventions such as exercise and lifestyle changes, may change the course of the disease.
Part of Burns' message is that of hope.
"Ninety percent of what is known about Alzheimer's disease has been discovered in the last 15 years," he said. "And dozens of drugs are in late-stage development."
An oncoming crisis
As the United States' population ages, Alzheimer's is poised to become a national crisis, socially, medically and financially. In 2016. Alzheimer's and related dementias will cost the nation $236 billion, according to the Alzheimer's Association, which also notes that Alzheimer's disease kills more Americans than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. One in nine people age 65 and older have Alzheimer's disease, and 1 in three people age 85 and older have it.
"Alzheimer's disease is essentially a disease of brain aging," Swerdlow said. "Because of that, age is the greatest risk factor. And as the population ages, more and more people will have it."
There are now more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer's, and without significant medical breakthroughs, Alzheimer's is projected to affect more than 13 million Americans by 2050. As the population ages, so does the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease.
Leading the nation in prevention
One way to stop Alzheimer's is to prevent it in the first place. The KU ADC has several ongoing trials examining lifestyle strategies, physical exercise and vascular health.
"We are leading the prevention field in Alzheimer's disease," said Burns. "We have a number of clinical trials looking at the connections between exercise and Alzheimer's. It appears that what's good for your heart and for your vascular health is also good for your brain."
The KU ADC's LEAP program, which stands for Lifestyle Enrichment for Alzheimer's Prevention, is a six-week program that uses the latest in Alzheimer's research to help promote brain health for residents of senior-living communities.
"We plan to expand LEAP," Burns said. "And we also plan to do more with healthy individuals to prevent brain aging. Our ability to use new technology, such as brain scans that can detect Alzheimer's related changes before the onset of memory loss, is moving the field of prevention research forward rapidly."
Connecting the community to trials
The biggest obstacle to research in Alzheimer's right now might be a surprising one-volunteers. Burns said the biggest contribution people could make to finding a cure is participating in a clinical trial.
"Nothing slows our progress more than the difficulty of finding volunteers for clinical trials," Burns said, noting that as research expands at the KU ADC, so does the need for more participants. "We have great need for a variety of volunteers for a number of trials at any given time."
Burns notes that the biggest needs right now are for healthy volunteers and for volunteers who are Hispanic or African-American. Studies have shown that older African-Americans and older Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the disease, for reasons that are not yet clear. But clinical trial volunteers of all kinds are needed.
To assist with the search for volunteers, the KU ADC is working on a new program to create connections among physicians, Alzheimer's patients, researchers and caregivers. Supported by the Global Alzheimer's Platform, the new KC MemoryStrings Alliance is designed to connect those who do research with those who could benefit from it while providing more tools to assist physicians in managing dementia care.
"We have to join together and treat Alzheimer's disease like a public health crisis," Burns said. "Only then can we find ways to prevent, treat and ultimately cure this disease."