Financial boosts help...
By David J. Craig
The fight against Alzheimer's disease today is a numbers game: while no cure is on the immediate horizon, experts say, drugs now being developed could delay the disease's onset for five years or more, thus dramatically reducing the number of cases in the United States.
“By slowing the biological progression of the disease, we can essentially stop Alzheimer's in its tracks for many elderly people,” says Robert Green, a MED professor of neurology and the clinical director of BU's Alzheimer's Disease Center (ADC).
For years, researchers at BU have been leaders in developing risk assessment, prevention, and diagnostic strategies for Alzheimer's disease — precisely the tools that help clinicians identify people most at risk for the disease, diagnose it early, and administer treatments that diminish its symptoms, or delay or prevent their appearance altogether.
Those efforts recently received a boost from the Fidelity Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Boston's Fidelity Investments, and eight community leaders who comprise the Boston University Alzheimer's Disease Advisory Board, which was created last October. The Fidelity Foundation gave the University $150,000 to support the work of Robert Stern, a former Brown University neurology and psychiatry professor recently recruited to BU. For their part, members of the advisory board collectively gave BU $55,000 to support Alzheimer's research, education, and clinical care efforts.
Stern, who in April becomes a MED associate professor of neurology and associate director of the clinical core of the ADC, studies the relationship between thyroid function and the development of Alzheimer's, an ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects about five million Americans. He says his work on the thyroid could lead to new treatments for the disease, such as one involving the use of thyroid hormones.
Stern's expertise in neuropsychology, says Green, will be a “tremendous addition” to the ADC, where ongoing projects include a $25 million National Institutes of Health–funded prevention trial to test the potential protection anti-inflammatory drugs provide against Alzheimer's, and one of the world's largest epidemiological studies on genetic and nongenetic risk factors for the disease. BU Alzheimer's researchers — who come from fields such as neurobiology, neuroanatomy, biochemistry, and pharmacology — also work closely with Boston Medical Center's New England Centenarian Study, exploring why some people escape the disease, and the NIH-funded and BU-administered Framingham Heart Study, which contains detailed medical records of 10,000 Framingham residents over the past five and a half decades, examining potential connections between vascular risk factors and Alzheimer's.
Stern was attracted to BU, he says, in part because of its reputation for supporting interdisciplinary research. “It's going to be a real joy for me to work in an environment that fosters collaborative research — within disciplines, across disciplines, and even across schools and colleges,” he says. “I know that happens in a wonderfully collegial fashion at BU, and that is truly rare.”
The gifts from Fidelity and members of the Alzheimer's Disease Advisory Board, Green says, were part of a recent push to increase philanthropic support for Alzheimer's work at BU. Money given by the board members includes $20,000 from Beth Fentin, of Lexington, Mass.; $16,400 from Michael Critelli, CEO of Pitney Bowes, a Connecticut company that specializes in office management technologies; and $10,000 from Harold Chefitz (CGS'53, COM'55), chairman and CEO of GliaMed, a New York–based biotechnology company.
“Our Alzheimer's Disease Center has an incredible amount of funding from the National Institutes of Health, and we're one of 29 federally designated Centers of Excellence in Alzheimer's disease research, which is very prestigious,” says Green, who came to BU four years ago. “Yet until now this area of research at BU has attracted relatively little philanthropic support. Changing that has been among my top priorities, and the results so far have been very gratifying.”
As well as a research facility, the ADC is a leading treatment center for Alzheimer's, and the only such center with NIH funding to study the effectiveness of disclosing to patients their genetic predisposition for the disease. It has special expertise in how Alzheimer's affects African-Americans.
“There's been a tremendous amount of progress in understanding and treating Alzheimer's disease in the past few years,” Green says. “Today, a clinical care center like ours is able to diagnosis Alzheimer's disease with greater than 90 percent accuracy, which is much more reliable than in the recent past. Another area where there's been a lot of progress is in the development of drugs that can slow the progression of the disease and help people cope with symptoms. Also, there is hope that a vaccine against the amyloid protein that accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer's patients will be developed, and BU has a world-renowned Amyloidosis Research Center.
“So there is every reason to believe that there is going to be much more progress made against Alzheimer's in the next few years,” he continues, “and Boston University is definitely going to be a part of it.”For more information about the Alzheimer's Disease Center, call 888-458-BUAD (2823), or visit www.bu.edu/alzresearch