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Alzheimer’s research accelerates at Yale

Medicine@Yale, 2015 - Oct Nov


A federally funded research center will support interdisciplinary efforts and pool resources to focus on Alzheimer’s disease

2015 has been a banner year for the study of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) at Yale. School of Medicine researchers recently published papers about an experimental drug that helps mice with a form of the disease, the role of immune cells in warding it off, and how cellular “garbage disposal” systems may be involved. In June, those discoveries and several recent expansions and investments in research, equipment, and faculty helped win the university an $8.9 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund a new Alzheimer Disease Research Center (ADRC).

Stephen M. Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology, professor of neurobiology, and founding director of the Yale Memory Disorders Clinic (YMDC), is the grant’s principal investigator. He leads the ADRC with co-director Christopher H. Van Dyck, M.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology, and neurobiology and the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit (ADRU). The two will help coordinate a small army of Yale physicians and scientists to accelerate research on this debilitating form of dementia.

As one of 29 federally funded AD research centers around the U.S., the Yale ADRC will coordinate the efforts of clinical and research units across the university, among them the ADRU; the Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair (Cnnr); the Yale/NIDA Neuroproteomics Center; the Program on Aging; and the YMDC. It will also offer mentorship and pilot funding to up-and-coming researchers who are interested in Alzheimer’s.

Three major lines of research, with an emphasis on the cell biology of Alzheimer’s disease, will headline the ADRC’s efforts. One, headed by Shawn M. Ferguson, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology, will study how nerve fibers’ waste-processing units, or lysosomes, can malfunction, potentially contributing to AD. In the second, Strittmatter and Van Dyck will study a key signal-receptor protein in neurons called mGluR5, one that could be targeted by new drugs. Finally, Chun-Hay Alex Kwan, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and neurobiology, will study how circuits of neurons involved with the neurotransmitter GABA may play a role in the disease.

The ADRC will also establish five new cores, including a Clinical Core built upon the 24-year-old ADRU, and a Biomarker/Pathology Core that will develop new ways to monitor the disease. Both cores will also aggregate samples like blood, brain tissue, and stem cells for broad sharing and study. An Outreach Core will recruit subjects and conduct Alzheimer’s-related community education, particularly for minorities.

Changes at Yale in recent years have paved the way for the university to become a center for Alzheimer’s research. For example, hiring in the Department of Neurology has increased since David Hafler, M.D., the William S. and Lois Stiles Edgerly Professor of Neurology, became chair: its full-time members now number 50, compared with 20 or fewer a decade ago. The YMDC was founded in 2013 under Strittmatter’s direction. Last year, the medical school made an $8.8 million investment in imaging technologies like magnetic resonance (MR) and positron emission tomography (PET). And a general expansion of basic neuroscience research, Van Dyck says, has also made a crucial difference

“With the CNNR and other people ... increasingly getting involved, it really gave us the critical mass to be able to do this,” Van Dyck says. “It’s a huge achievement.”

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