Q & A on field of Alzheimer's research


June 15, 2020

Q & A on field of Alzheimer's research

Dr. Thomas Grabowski directs the Alzheimer Disease Research Center at UW Medicine.

Every week, new and promising news comes out on treating and curing Alzheimer’s disease. New drug trials are starting. New therapies are being tested.

And around the country, the National Institutes of Health funds 32 Alzheimer Disease Research Centers, including one at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The center, started in 1985, was just awarded $15 million over five years to continue its work.

We checked in with Thomas Grabowski, a professor of radiology and neurology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the director of UW Medicine’s Alzheimer Disease Research Center, on the field of Alzheimer’s research:

What is the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center known for?

Our center made its name on the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease. We discovered some of the genes which cause early onset, such as Presenilin 2. We are well-known for spinal fluid biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, which can disclose status 10-15 years before onset. This is very important for research. We are strong on the biology of Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions.

We have also become known more recently for our work with American Indians and Alaska Natives, one of the highest risk groups for Alzheimer’s. The center is building on extensive research and outreach activity in partnership with colleagues at Washington State University, and will work to bring this under-represented group into full participation in Alzheimer’s research

Are you working on any exciting drug trials?

We are one of the study sites for Seattle biotech Athira Pharma, which is now investigating its new growth factor therapeutic called NDX-1017. The drug could halt or reverse degeneration that causes Alzheimer’s and other illnesses including Parkinson’s and ALS, also called motor neuron disease.

What should be people know about Alzheimer’s research?

It’s now possible to diagnose Alzheimer’s very early in its course with biomarkers. As we do that, we learn about multiple types of Alzheimer’s disease. We think this has the potential for a precision medicine approach to different forms of the disease. Now we are concentrating to divide Alzheimer’s in those subtypes.

We also realize how to integrate biological research programs with clinical and outreach activity. Our philosophy is to look not only at what’s lost but also what’s spared. We can help people live well with memory loss.

How can researchers help people live with memory loss?

In 2020, we are still looking for a medicine to change the biology and outcome of Alzheimer’s. But we can help people build better brain reserves. It is possible to build a stronger brain. Alzheimer’s risk is modifiable by lifestyle. More education or more cognitive challenges and better cardiovascular health make you relatively resilient. And people can participate in research.

How can I determine if I’m at risk for Alzheimer’s?

If you think you are having trouble with memory or thinking, you could make an appointment at the Memory and Brain Wellness Center and get cognitive tests to see how you measure up to your peer group. If we find objective evidence of memory weakness, you may get a brain scan and a test of spinal fluid. You could still be competent and working but have mild cognitive impairment. We think that’s the right stage for diagnosis and obtaining help. We could enroll you in a study and offer interventions to build brain reserves.

Tell me about the Memory and Brain Wellness Center.

In 2013, we launched the Memory and Brain Wellness Center at UW Medicine to have a solid clinical partner for UW Medicine’s Alzheimer’s research program. We moved the Alzheimer Research Development Center from the VA Puget Sound Health Care System to Harborview Medical Center to be closer to patients and our research team. The Memory and Brain Wellness Center sees about 1,000 new patients annually and supports a strong clinical trials program. The center is funded by philanthropy and clinical funding.

What kind of resources does the center have for researchers?

We maintain a cohort of 400 well-characterized patients and their biospecimens that can be used in studies. We have a vigorous and cutting edge autopsy program that is the gateway for biological work. We offer grants to new researchers. And we work with researchers at several institutions to share knowledge and collaborate.

Find details at the Alzheimer Disease Research Center and Memory Brain Wellness Center.

 By Bobbi Nodell, bnodell@uw.edu, 206.543.7129