The National Institute on Aging selected Emory University as the lead institution to receive a federal grant of over $73 million. The grant will fund five years of international research into drugs that may prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Emory will use the grant to establish an Open Drug Discovery Center for Alzheimer’s disease, headed by Professor and Chair of the Department of Neurology Allan Levey. Other members of the research team include nonprofit Sage Bionetworks and the Structural Genomics Consortium.
The National Institutes of Health lists Alzheimer’s as “one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century.” The disease currently affects around 5.6 million people over the age of 65 in the United States.
This collaboration is partially due to a collective shift in the Alzheimer’s treatment areas that scientists want to research, according to Levey.
For the past several decades, research into treatments has focused on addressing two attributes of Alzheimer’s: amyloid proteins, which clump together in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains to disrupt brain cell functioning, and neurofibrillary tangles, which may inhibit brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other in regions associated with memory. However, clinical trials testing treatment methods based off these frameworks have “universally failed,” Levey said.
“So much work [has] focused on those [treatments] to the exclusion of other [treatments],” Levey said. “That [failure] has led to concern, globally, that we need to broaden the searchlight and identify other therapeutic targets.”
After spending the last five years comparing the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients with those of control patients, scientists in the Accelerating Medicines Partnership Alzheimer’s Disease Project found hundreds of new proteins that may contribute to Alzheimer’s development.
This international collaboration aims to create chemical and biological tools that can identify and treat those proteins in animal models and ultimately in human clinical trials. Researchers will communicate regularly to share their results, with the final goal of developing drugs that slow down the neural changes that lead to Alzheimer’s.
Research will prioritize prevention of the disease before it begins by developing biomarkers for risk factors and providing treatment to those at risk.
“Those early changes that we’re finding in the brain are beginning 15-20 years before symptoms begin,” Levey said. “Since most of those people are older when they get symptoms, if we can delay the onset of the symptoms for even five or 10 years, we can prevent the disease in many people.”