Emerging Research: New Leads in the Mystery of Alzheimer's Disease

Researchers in the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center are exploring every lead -- genetic, mental, physical, emotional, social -- to find causes of the disease, as well as treatments.

David Bennett (Alzheimer's)

Researchers in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center are conducting the world’s only longitudinal studies on aging and dementia that include studies of brain matter at the cellular and molecular level after a person passes away. They are exploring every lead — genetic, mental, physical, emotional, social — to try to determine what predisposes people to cognitive decline and how we can prevent it.

One of those leads resulted in a $7.9 million award from the National Institutes of Health. The award, shared by Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center Director David Bennett, MD, and his colleagues at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, supports their effort to build a pipeline for identifying drug targets, finding drugs for those targets and then moving into clinical trials to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease. An FDA-approved drug hasn’t appeared on the market in more than a decade, but this pipeline could ultimately allow Bennett and his colleagues to identify new drugs at the amazing speed of every one to two years. Further, the pipeline is scalable and easily can be expanded to focus on other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and stroke.

“For a very long time, we’ve needed new therapeutic targets in Alzheimer’s disease. The combination of the unique data we’ve generated over the past two decades and remarkable technological advances over the past several years has culminated in our ability to lay down the final steps that link our community-based cohort studies with our decade-long investment in a clinical trials infrastructure,” Bennett said.

The Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project make this progress possible. They are the world’s only community-based studies of risk factors for dementia in which all subjects agree to donate their brains (and, for the Memory and Aging Project, their spinal cords, nerves and muscles) at time of death. Because of the size and depth of these studies — more than 3,000 participants and 1,200 brains to date — the global research community considers Rush to have the most valuable human biospecimen and clinical research resource — a fact that has most recently attracted the attention of biopharmaceutical company Navidea.

Navidea has offered to help Rush take this research to the next level by integrating additional imaging data into the studies. While a subset of participants are undergoing structural and functional MRI, the emergence of new imaging agents has made it possible to see some of the molecular changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the brains of living people. Prior to this, the only way to analyze the brains of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease was to examine brain tissue under a microscope after death.

This new technology has the potential to rapidly advance researchers’ ability to determine which people will likely benefit most from certain types of drugs. But above all, it allows the unique opportunity to gather more information about Alzheimer’s while the patients are still living — an important step in the long journey to develop effective prevention and treatment for this common and devastating disease.

Donors who’ve supported Bennett’s work include Mrs. Marsha J. Dowd, Edwin F. Schild Charitable Foundation, Mrs. Margaret Heymann, Mr. and Mrs. J. Ron Moore, Mr. and Mrs. John J. Sabl, The Sidley Austin Foundation and so many others.

Interested in supporting this research or learning more? Contact Deanna Wisthuff, director of development, at (312) 942-7246 or at deanna_m_wisthuff@rush.edu.


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