By Leha Byrd and Leah Small
University Public Affairs
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates pledged $100 million to further research efforts for Alzheimer’s disease last month. Gates is making a personal $50 million investment in the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that studies the disease, while another $50 million will be devoted to startup ventures researching Alzheimer’s.
Gates has expressed personal and professional reasons to financially undergird research, including the emotional toll the disease takes on families and caregivers. Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health researchers are investing in the study of Alzheimer’s in an effort to discover crucial triggers and remedies for the condition that, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, affects more than 5 million Americans. That number could leap to 16 million by 2050.
VCU has taken an interdisciplinary approach to Alzheimer’s research. Michael Peters, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering in the School of Engineering, is researching molecules called monomers that are related to Alzheimer’s. David Cifu, M.D., chairman and the Herman J. Flax Professor in the VCU Health Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, is the principal investigator for a coordinated, multicenter research effort between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense about Alzheimer’s disease. The Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium is a $62.2 million research initiative that began in 2013.
In interviews with VCU News, Peters and Cifu agreed it will take substantial, long-term investments like Gates’ to influence improvements in how research, and thus treatment, positively impacts Alzheimer’s patients.
Why are these types of monetary investments important to support research?
David Cifu: There is already nearly $2 billion in U.S. research investment in Alzheimer’s disease and related brain disorders. But it is diffused across nearly 100 institutions, is not specifically coordinated efficiently and doesn’t examine the lifetime of causes and treatments. Rather, it’s largely focused on animal work to identify mechanisms, end disease treatments or identify ways of enhancing caregiver well-being. Gates’ investment has the chance to form a coordinated consortium of efforts that provide an integrated research approach and a longitudinal study focus to better understand this slow, chronic, degenerative condition.
Why did you choose to study the molecular origins of Alzheimer's disease?
Michael Peters: Almost everyone has a family member or knows of someone who has been negatively affected by this devastating disease. I teach in both medicine and engineering and I have a great appreciation for the human elements of disease. Initially it was one of the systems we chose to study from a computational physics perspective. There was a lack of previous computational analyses or understanding as to what was causing the molecular “havoc.” We are pleased that our findings have both scientific and societal value.
You discovered that the addition of two naturally occurring amino acids to the ends of amino acid chains in the brain could lead to Alzheimer's. How do the additional amino acids affect the brain on a molecular level and possibly lead to the disease?
MP: The two additional amino acids lead to a slightly different shape of an entire chain. So, think of the chain as being slightly more twisted now. This new twisted chain, called AB42, combines with other chains to form very strong aggregates of chains. Chains that lack the two additional amino acids — AB40 chains — also combine, but form relatively weaker aggregates that are more likely to break up. The strong aggregates are much more toxic to neurons.
In your research, what have you discovered are the least known facts about Alzheimer's disease?
DC: It’s likely that combinations of factors (genetics, medical status, psychological) and exposures (trauma, exercise, diet, and environment) contribute to development of Alzheimer’s over a relatively long period of time, like more than 20 years. We do know that regardless of your personal risk factors, such as family history and genetics, if you begin as early as possible to optimize your physical and brain health with practices such as good diet, regular exercise, stress management, restorative sleep patterns and maintaining cognitive activity, you can sometimes prevent dementias from happening, or at least delay them for up to a decade or more. Importantly, people must attend to their own wellness and brain health now, not wait until they get some sign of a problem or decline. Other lifestyle factors and behaviors that can help to protect your brain or build up your brain resilience are having regular social engagements, to include a stable circle of friends, avoiding tobacco, consuming alcohol only in moderation and using regular preventive health care checkups to optimize your heart, lungs, kidneys, and metabolic systems.
Since you began your research in 2013, have there been any poignant revelations regarding the disease, particularly as it relates to veterans and those who have served in the military?
DC: The work we have been doing in the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium has found that the specific risks seen from combat exposures of U.S. service members is such that 25 percent of soldiers experienced one or more concussions in the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, 40 percent developed post-traumatic stress disorder and 30 percent returned with chronic pain. These issues are not only challenging and disabling in and of themselves, but also contribute to an increase in the long-term risks for dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, if not addressed both acutely and long term. Additionally, many of these significant problems occur together. For example, 75 percent of individuals with a combat-associated concussion also have post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans are the largest, high-risk group for the development of Alzheimer’s disease because of their combat exposures. That's why funding is so important, so that researchers can have the capital and the manpower necessary to identify these peculiarities and the specifics of the disease and get the best answers and treatment.