Major new Emory grant will accelerate search for Alzheimer’s treatments

Medical experts studied the EEG condition of the patient.
Medical experts studied the EEG condition of the patient.

Emory University has received a major tool in the fight to discover new treatments for Alzheimer’s.

The university has been selected as the lead institution for a major $37.5 million federal grant to speed up the development of new therapies and technologies to slow, prevent and cure the progressive disease that affects more than 5.8 million people in the United States, including 150,000 in Georgia.

The grant is part of a larger initiative by the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health, to establish two new research centers to open the pipeline for successful new, next-generation drugs. Funding overall for the two centers is expected to reach $73 million over the next five years.

The new grant at Emory will create an Open Drug Discovery Center for Alzheimer’s Disease. The center, led by principal investigator Dr. Allan Levey, will include researchers at Emory, as well as Sage Bionetworks, Structural Genomics Consortium, Stanford and Oxford universities and the University of North Carolina.

The second center will be through the Indiana University School of Medicine Alzheimer’s Disease Drug Discovery center with researchers from Purdue University, West Lafayette.

The hope is that the creation of the new centers will help researchers “cast a much broader net” with new treatment approaches, said Levey, chairman of Emory’s Department of Neurology and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

“There is great urgency” to speed up the discovery of new potential treatments for Alzheimer’s, Levey said.

More and more cases are coming rapidly because the aging population is growing and nearly 1 of 2 will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

In Georgia, especially.

In 2017, 4,298 people died from Alzheimer's in Georgia, up from 1,235 in 2000, a 248% increase, according to the Alzheimer's Association, Georgia Chapter. By contrast, the number of deaths from Alzheimer's nationally increased by 145% over the same period.

The estimated amount Alzheimer's and other dementias in the state will cost in health care, long term care and hospice in 2019 is $1.18 billion. Experts estimate a 33 percent increase by 2025, according to the association.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease and the most common form of dementia. It can cause widespread damage in the brain. It attacks a person’s memory, behavior and other cognitive abilities, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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A major factor of the daunting challenge to find therapies and a cure for Alzheimer’s is the complexity of the disease and how it can affect people differently, he said.

Hope for effective cures to slow down the disease’s progression and treatments has been stymied by consistent experimental drug failures, said Levey.

As researchers are beginning to unravel the complex changes in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s, the new center comes at a “critical time to accelerate development of new drugs to treat the disease effectively.”

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“Our major motivation needs to be to think much more broadly about the disease and its causes,” he said. “The goal is to use large data approaches in an unbiased manner to learn more about new targets that might be out there for Alzheimer’s. What’s going on in the human brain of a person with Alzheimer’s?”

For example, new insights reveal many alterations in dozens of genes, brain inflammation, and other processes that offer new therapeutic targets.

Though the disease most often strikes people who are at least 65, it can appear much earlier.

One barrier to developing a successful drug treatment program was an “oversimplification of the disease,” said Lorenzo Refolo, program director for Alzheimer’s Translational Research at the National Institute on Aging. “The disease is much more complicated. You have 10 individuals with Alzheimer’s, and what causes the disease can be different in all 10 and require 10 different medicines.”

Linda Davidson, executive director, Alzheimers Association, Georgia Chapter, the presence of one of the centers in Georgia will help raise awareness about the disease and, perhaps, influence the legislature in taking steps to help people affected by the disease and support research and programs.

“What they do can make an impact on this disease,” she aid. “Sometimes it takes a long time to go from coming up with something in the laboratory to the bedside. It can take years to get there and there are sometimes problems along the way.”

Susan Critelli of Marietta was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016 at age 54. She and her husband of nearly two decades, Gary, have followed each promising therapy and the failures.

Her husband and caregiver is frustrated at what appears to be the slow pace of finding a treatment to slow the progression of the disease or to find a cure.

“I think society has this theory of immediate gratification, and whenever there is a delay in the process, it creates frustration,” he said. “You look for whatever you can to move this along. Overriding this is the hope.”

A few years ago, Critelli and his wife noticed that she was forgetting how to do simple tasks like setting the table, solving easy math problems and scheduling appointments at the dental office where she worked.

Tests determined it was Alzheimer’s.

“I miss the things that I can’t do still,” said Susan Critelli. “I hope that it’s going to get better. I definitely want them to do more research.”