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VUMC forms center focused on Alzheimer’s and related dementias

Oct. 1, 2020, 8:55 AM

Angela Jefferson, PhD, is the founding director of the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center, VUMC’s newest freestanding institutional center.
Angela Jefferson, PhD, is the founding director of the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center, VUMC’s newest freestanding institutional center. (photo by Avery Haller)

by Paul Govern

Leaders at Vanderbilt University Medical Center have announced that the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center (VMAC), currently housed in the Department of Neurology, will become a freestanding institutional center.

Joining other VUMC disease-based centers funded by the National Institutes of Health, such as the Vanderbilt Diabetes Center and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, VMAC will support and draw expertise from faculty across the campus working in a broad range of disciplines. VMAC’s founding director, Angela Jefferson, PhD, professor of Neurology and Medicine, has been named director of the new institutional center.

As it expands, VMAC will serve the institution as the hub of all research, clinical and educational initiatives in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). This will include coordinating and supporting rapidly evolving initiatives across disciplines such as neurology, psychiatry, medicine, radiology, engineering, chemistry, pharmacology and pathology.

“As the elderly population in the U.S. continues to grow, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias have become an important strategic area for investment and growth across VUMC’s research and clinical enterprises,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Executive Vice President for Research. “ADRD remains the only leading cause of death in the United States without effective prevention or therapeutic interventions. As these illnesses threaten to affect yet greater numbers of patients and families, this new center will help place VUMC at the leading edge of ADRD discovery, care and education. I’m very pleased to welcome Angela to this greatly expanded role.”

Jefferson, who joined the VUMC faculty in 2012, is an internationally recognized researcher in cardiovascular and cerebrovascular contributions to ADRD. In 2018 she established an interdisciplinary training program in Alzheimer’s disease and, with the aid of a recent Vanderbilt Trans-Institutional Programs award, has worked to strengthen VMAC’s partnerships across campus.

“Finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias continues to be one of the most daunting challenges we face. I want to welcome Dr. Jefferson into this exciting new role as VMAC’s founding director and look forward to her leadership and vision as we build the center into a world-class hub for discovery,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and Chief Executive Officer for VUMC and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved a new medication for Alzheimer’s disease since 2003. Current Alzheimer’s clinical trials predominantly focus on two hallmark protein abnormalities, amyloid plaques and tau tangles. VMAC investigators are pioneering approaches focused on novel pathways that intersect with these abnormal proteins, searching for means to reduce risk and offer much-needed protection against the disease.

“It is more critical than ever that we identify new targets that are not limited to the traditional amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease,” Jefferson said. “This institutional center is instrumental in our efforts to establish a world-class translational infrastructure that catalyzes rapid identification and evaluation of new therapeutic and prevention targets for ADRD. Leveraging Vanderbilt’s unparalleled strengths and building new areas of expertise will foster a more robust intellectual neighborhood for our campus that drives innovation and progress for the millions of families affected by ADRD.”

The launch comes in conjunction with two major grant awards to support ADRD research at Vanderbilt. In August, Jefferson and her colleagues were awarded a $3.7 million, three-year grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to establish a prospective NIA-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center  at VUMC. The award is intended to support planning and infrastructure development for an eventual NIA research center application and NIH Center of Excellence designation for Alzheimer’s research efforts at VUMC.

In June, the Vanderbilt Memory and Aging Project received an $18.2 million, five-year grant renewal from the NIA. Founded by Jefferson in 2012, this interdisciplinary project gathers comprehensive longitudinal cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health measures on hundreds of adults to identify vascular contributions to ADRD.

Jefferson earned her PhD in clinical psychology from Drexel University. She completed internship and fellowship training in neuropsychology at Brown University and fellowship training in neuropsychology and epidemiology at Boston University. Before joining VUMC, Jefferson was on the Boston University School of Medicine faculty from 2005 to 2011.

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