Escalating the fight against Alzheimer’s disease

Generous gifts totalling $30 million are supporting the establishment of the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at Brown, with a focus on early detection and viable treatments.

What is the best way to attack the problem of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias? 

Collaboratively, say Brown University’s faculty members working in this field. Nearly 60 principal investigators at Brown and its affiliated hospitals received a total of more than $40 million in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research in 2020 alone, earning Brown its top 20 ranking for research on the disease. But these investigators know that working together and sharing information about different aspects of the disease is the path to significant breakthroughs.

Now, Brown has received $30 million in new gifts to establish the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research with the aim of building a world-class research program focused on early detection and treatment.

The center integrates the expertise of scientists and physicians at Brown’s Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science and the Division of Biology and Medicine, home to The Warren Alpert Medical School. Its launch is made possible by gifts of $25 million and $5 million from donors who wish to remain anonymous.

Diane Lipscombe, a professor of neuroscience at Brown who leads the Carney Institute, is the initial director of the center. She notes that despite scientific progress over the years, there is still much to learn about the biology of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. 

“Ultimately, our work will contribute to a more thorough understanding of the most fundamental mechanisms involved in neurodegeneration, which will enable earlier diagnosis as well as the creation of treatments that will not just slow degeneration but also prevent it,” Lipscombe said.

Lipscombe has directed Brown’s brain science institute since 2016, a period over which its scholars have made new advances in developing assistive technologies to restore communication and mobility to people affected by paralysis; created new tools to map brain circuits that control behaviors; and developed computational software that is producing groundbreaking insights into the nature of rhythmic brain activity.

“At Carney, we’ve been able to achieve a lot in a short period of time by working within the collaborative, cross-disciplinary environment that is Brown University,” Lipscombe said. “With this Alzheimer’s disease center, we will similarly create the framework for scholars in basic science to interact with clinical researchers in our affiliated hospitals. When there’s a common drive to make an impact among so many talented experts across fields, that’s when you have enormous potential to really change the trajectory of this disease.”

Dr. Jack A. Elias, who leads biology and medicine at Brown, recalled a moment several years ago when the idea for the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research started to crystallize.

“After yet another disappointing announcement that a pharmaceutical effort to treat Alzheimer’s had failed, it became clear that it was time to bring new expertise and perspective to bear on this challenge,” Elias said. “Brown not only has a tremendous amount of talent in basic science research and discovery, but also excellent clinical activities and world-class Alzheimer’s care at its affiliated hospitals. The new gifts and the launch of this center make it possible to bring all those brilliant people together to look at this disease in a different way.”

The $25 million investment from the new center’s lead donor, and the additional $5 million gift in support, mark major progress toward an initial fundraising goal of $50 million for the center and come as part of the University’s BrownTogether campaign, which has raised $2.88 billion to date. The gifts also build on major philanthropic support for Brown’s cutting-edge work in brain science — of the total contributed to BrownTogether to date, more than $218.3 million has been raised to support research and education in brain science.

Brown not only has a tremendous amount of talent in basic science research and discovery, but also excellent clinical activities and world-class Alzheimer’s care at its affiliated hospitals. The new gifts and the launch of this center make it possible to bring all those brilliant people together to look at this disease in a different way.

Dr. Jack A. Elias Senior Vice President for Health Affairs, Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences, Frank L. Day Professor of Biology, Professor of Medicine

Pairing basic and clinical research

Among the accomplished researchers and clinicians at Brown working to solve the Alzheimer’s puzzle is Dr. Stephen Salloway, a professor of neurology and psychiatry who will serve as the associate director of the new center, overseeing clinical research. Salloway has been a lead author on several key Alzheimer’s studies, and he leads the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital, a globally recognized clinical research center focused on Alzheimer’s disease, and an affiliated hospital of Brown’s medical school.

The holy grail in Alzheimer’s research, Salloway says, is a simple, effective, widely available blood test for early detection of the disease — one that can identify who is predisposed to developing memory loss and other dementia symptoms, so that treatments can be administered as early as possible.

The new gifts to Brown will aid in that quest by supporting a fully staffed fluid biomarker facility. The facility will enable researchers to collect from patients and analyze fluid biomarkers such as cerebrospinal fluid and plasma samples, identify gold-standard Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers, develop new hypotheses about the disease, and assess the efficacy of clinical trial treatments.

“I would like to see Brown help to open the modern era of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, where patients can receive an early and accurate diagnosis and start on treatments that preserve memory and quality of life,” Salloway said. “We are also entering a time where older people can safely learn about their risk for Alzheimer’s and take steps to keep their brain healthy — this center can help them do that, and the fluid biomarker facility will be an essential tool in enabling our success.”

Once up and running, the facility will serve as a bridge between basic laboratory science and clinical, patient-focused research, Lipscombe said. Biological and brain science research will be informed by direct access to patient-derived biomarkers and genetic data, and clinical researchers will have immediate knowledge of novel disease targets identified through basic research.

Funding from the gifts will also expand a partnership with a renowned translational research team led by Oskar Hansson of Lund University in Sweden. Together, the teams at Brown and Lund will study a new cohort of 500 asymptomatic individuals to identify early biomarkers of cognitive impairment and ultimately, Alzheimer’s disease. 

“The biomarker initiative is really a team effort,” Salloway said. “Brown faculty, working with researchers around the world, will help to develop combination treatments using precision medicine approaches that target key components of the disease based on the molecular profile of individual patients."

A hub for multidisciplinary research

Support from the gifts will also help Brown build on its critical mass of Alzheimer’s researchers. While Lipscombe will direct the center at its outset, the $5 million gift will contribute to the recruitment of a full-time leader dedicated to the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. The University will also recruit key faculty in bioinformatics and neuroimmunology, two areas that will complement existing Brown expertise in biomed and brain science.

To incentivize collaborative new Alzheimer's research projects across Brown’s schools, institutes, centers, departments and affiliated hospitals, a portion of the $25 million gift will be used as seed funding for new multidisciplinary efforts. The center will hold an annual competition to award funds to innovative proposals.

In addition to the laboratory research already underway, Brown-affiliated researchers are also involved in 17 clinical trials of Alzheimer’s treatments, including at Rhode Island Hospital and Butler Hospital.

Each of these efforts is essential, Lipscombe notes, because the brain is composed of multiple interconnected biological systems — neuronal, glial, immune and vascular — and all have been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration. Preventing or delaying Alzheimer's disease onset will depend on an early, multifaceted treatment regime informed by target identification across these biological systems that is anchored in and informed by patient data.

“Brown is uniquely positioned to cover this field from the earliest, most fundamental mechanisms all the way through to patient care,” Lipscombe said. “Thanks to these gifts, we have an incredible opportunity to change the disease trajectory through the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research — there is no more time to waste.”

This article is adapted from one that originally appeared on news.brown.edu.