Alzheimer's research accelerates at Yale

March 23, 2016

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As the principal investigators of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), Stephen Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D. (center), and Christopher Van Dyck, M.D. (right), will spearhead cross-campus research efforts. Arash Salardini, M.D. (left), is associate leader of the ADRC’s Clinical Core.

A new federally funded research center supports interdisciplinary efforts and pools resources to focus on Alzheimer’s disease.

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s, are among the most devastating and feared of the disorders that afflict humankind. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2015, an estimated 5.3 million Americans had AD, including 73,000 people in the state of Connecticut. With a rapidly aging population, the challenges that neurodegenerative diseases pose for our society will only increase. Decades of research in molecular and cellular biology and neurobiology have revealed a myriad of potential drug targets to slow or prevent these disorders.

In 2004 the School of Medicine undertook a strategic planning initiative, which targeted research on neurodegenerative diseases as a priority for the medical school, and since then we have worked to strengthen and broaden our resources for neurodegeneration research and treatment.

The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit (ADRU) is one of our long-standing efforts dedicated to clinical research on neurodegenerative diseases. Now in its 25th year, the ADRU conducts clinical research in the treatment, neuroimaging, and genetics of AD and healthy aging and is led by Christopher Van Dyck, M.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology, and neuroscience. Today, the ADRU is conducting or about to conduct 12 clinical trials in these areas.

To complement the ADRU, in 2005 we formed the Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair (CNNR). Led by Pietro De Camilli, M.D., chair and the Klingenstein Professor of Neuroscience and professor of cell biology, and Stephen Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology, professor of neuroscience, and founding director of the Yale Memory Disorders Clinic, the CNNR brings together researchers who study basic aspects of neuronal cell biology with researchers who focus on neuronal disease. Our philosophy has been that the synergy between these two approaches would accelerate the pace of Yale’s research on neurodegenerative diseases and nerve injury and repair. And this has proven true: working collaboratively, our researchers have made significant strides in understanding neurodegenerative diseases.

To address our strategic plan, we have recruited many pioneering researchers on AD and other neurodegenerative disorders who are affiliated with the Departments of Neuroscience and Neurology, the ADRU, the CNNR, and the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience. Our research cores, particularly the Yale Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Center and the Yale Magnetic Resonance Research Center, play a critical part in our clinical research and continue to evolve to best serve our researchers’ needs. At the PET Center, the availability of new ligands—radioactive isotopes that make it possible to trace activity in the brains of living humans—is expanding our ability to image the key markers of AD in vivo.

Our recent progress has made us a leader in the field of neurodegenerative research. In a testament to this, the School of Medicine received a significant award last year that establishes a new Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC).

The Yale ADRC is supported by an $8.9 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. As one of 29 federally funded AD research centers nationwide, the center will coordinate the efforts of clinical and research units across the university. It will also offer mentorship and pilot funding to up-and-coming researchers who are interested in AD. Strittmatter is the grant’s principal investigator; he leads the center with co-director Van Dyck.

With an emphasis on the cell biology of AD, three lines of research will spearhead the center’s efforts. Researchers will study how nerve fibers’ waste-processing units, or lysosomes, can malfunction, potentially contributing to AD. In the second project, scientists will investigate a key signal-receptor protein in neurons that could be targeted by new drugs. The third will examine how circuits of neurons involved with the neurotransmitter GABA may play a role in the disease.

The center will also establish five new cores, including a Clinical Core built upon the ADRU, and a Biomarker/Neuropathology Core that will develop new ways to monitor the disease. Both cores will also aggregate blood, brain tissue, and stem cells for sharing and study. An Outreach Core will recruit subjects for clinical trials and conduct Alzheimer’s-related community education, particularly for minorities. Additionally, an Administrative Core coordinates and oversees all center activities, and a Data Management and Statistics Core provides data management and statistical support to meet the ADRC’s operational and research needs.

It is an exciting time for neurodegeneration research at the School of Medicine. We now hope to continue to grow our research and have Yale lead the way in developing a treatment and eventual cure for AD and other neurodegenerative disorders.