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VUMC to lay groundwork for Tennessee’s first federally funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center

Sep. 10, 2020, 8:38 AM


by Paul Govern

Angela Jefferson, PhD, professor of Neurology and director of the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center, has been awarded a $3.7 million, three-year grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to support establishment of a prospective NIA-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Angela Jefferson, PhD, and colleagues are establishing an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at VUMC.
Angela Jefferson, PhD, and colleagues are establishing an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at VUMC. (photo by Avery Haller)

As characterized by the NIA, the award is intended to support planning and infrastructure development for an eventual NIA research center application and ADRC designation for VUMC.

An initial group of ADRCs was established by Congress in 1984. There are currently 31 of these centers situated within major medical institutions across the country. Researchers at these centers are translating new discoveries into improved diagnosis and care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and searching for ways to treat and prevent these diseases.

The National Institutes of Health attaches its Center of Excellence designation to each ADRC, denoting their high concentration of research expertise and resources. Each ADRC receives $2 million per year from the NIA to cover direct costs for shared resources and services for Alzheimer’s and dementia research.

With the new award, Jefferson and colleagues will establish the Exploratory Vanderbilt ADRC. According to Jefferson, the center will have a 3-fold focus: identifying concomitant risk pathways with a focus on vascular disease; examining genomic and proteomic factors that underlie resilience to Alzheimer’s disease, thereby identifying novel therapeutic targets and prevention strategies; and developing new pharmacological interventions emphasizing non-amyloid targets.

“These three initiatives focus on concomitant disease processes that complement ongoing efforts by other ADRCs to treat core Alzheimer’s disease pathology, providing high quality prevention strategies, targets and therapies that reduce Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias though synergistic pathways,” Jefferson said.

With more than 3,500 deaths per year, Alzheimer’s disease is Tennessee’s fifth leading cause of death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state has the nation’s fourth highest Alzheimer’s death rate. Relatively few NIA-funded ADRCs are based in the Southeast and there are none in Tennessee.

“The new center will serve as the institutional hub for Alzheimer’s disease research and educational opportunities and will share data and collaborate with other ADRCs across the network to advance discoveries for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and related dementias,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Executive Vice President for Research at VUMC.

The center includes 35 faculty members representing 23 specialties from more than 20 departments, centers and institutes across campus. Over the next three years the center will establish a research cohort, recruiting an initial 250 to 300 participants ages 50 or older from Middle Tennessee. Similar to the 31 established ADRCs, this cohort will include three types of participants: some who are cognitively normal, others who have mild cognitive impairment (a clinical syndrome thought to reflect the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia), and others diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Following uniform protocols used by all ADRCs, the new center will capture participant information using brain MRI, cognitive testing, blood draws, cerebrospinal fluid sampling, and, via an autopsy program, brain tissue collection.

“All data collected through our center’s participant cohort will be available to any qualified researcher on campus who wants access,” Jefferson said. “Investigators can request direct access to biological specimens from our biobank, including blood, cerebrospinal fluid and brain tissue, and anyone can request to recruit from our well-characterized participant cohort for pilot studies that may include evaluation not captured by the ADRC uniform data protocols. If investigators need access to more participants for their larger prospective projects, we have a clinic and community outreach and recruitment pipeline ready to serve them.

“Beyond supporting basic, translational and clinical research in the Alzheimer’s and related dementia space, the center will offer training opportunities at all levels across the campus, from undergraduate programming to early career faculty training,” Jefferson said.

The center has three components:

  • an Administrative Core directed by Jefferson, with associate directors Consuelo Wilkins, MD, professor of Medicine and vice president for Health Equity at VUMC, and Charles Sanders, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and associate dean for Research in the School of Medicine;
  • a Clinical Core led by Paul Newhouse, MD, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and co-led by Katherine Gifford, PsyD, assistant professor of Neurology;
  • a Biomarker Core led by Timothy Hohman, PhD, associate professor of Neurology, and co-led by Bennett Landman, PhD, associate professor of Electrical Engineering.

The center’s mission emphasizes community outreach and engagement, especially among African Americans and other groups disproportionately affected by dementia yet historically underrepresented in Alzheimer’s research. Anyone age 50 or older who is interested in joining the new research participant cohort can visit the Exploratory Vanderbilt ADRC website to learn more about how to get involved. Test results will be reported to participants and their physicians, including any incidental findings that may be clinically significant.

The Exploratory Vanderbilt ADRC is supported by NIA grant AG068082.

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