July 10, 1998

Fund established to enhance Alzheimer’s disease research

Fund established to enhance Alzheimer's disease research

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(graphic by Paul Gross)

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Dr. William Whetsell Jr.

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William W. (Bill) Franklin

Studies of the post-mortem brain tissue of patients afflicted with Alzheimer¹s Disease will be expanded at Vanderbilt University Medical Center thanks to money donated in memory of William W. (Bill) Franklin, the late executive director of Development for VUMC.

Franklin, who died in October 1996 after seven years at VUMC, had seen several members of his family diagnosed with Alzheimer¹s Disease and was very interested in the research, said his wife, Madge Franklin.

"He lived in fear of Alzheimer¹s Disease," she said. "He believed, and so do I , that the research at Vanderbilt is very important. Research is the only way they¹re going to find a cure for Alzheimer¹s. It¹s as important to me as it was to Bill, so I want to support the research in any way I can," she said, explaining why she made the decision to ask for contributions to Alzheimer¹s research in lieu of flowers or other donations when Franklin died.

"One of the things we¹ve needed for years is to have actual support for a post-mortem brain tissue bank, specifically to study Alzheimer¹s brains and related disorders such as Parkinson¹s and Huntington¹s Disease. The William W. Franklin Memorial Fund will be used primarily for Alzheimer¹s research," said Dr. William Whetsell Jr., professor of Pathology and Psychiatry and director of Neuropathology. We are very grateful to Mrs. Franklin."

The purpose of the brain bank, which Whetsell established in 1983, is to accumulate, properly prepare and preserve post-mortem brain tissues from autopsies of individuals with neurodegenerative diseases. These tissues are extremely valuable for research in these diseases. Since the brain bank bank was established, there have been more than 20 publications reporting studies that have come directly from research on tissues from the brain tissue bank.

"The opportunity to examine and study this material from autopsies is very important because these are diseases which, as far as we know, occur only in humans. Since there are no naturally-occurring animal Œmodels¹ in which research can be carried out, we have to learn all we can from the human brain and how and why it degenerates in these disorders. The only way this can be done is to have facilities capable of handling these tissues and maintaining them for present research as well as future research as new technologies become available for study of these diseases."

Part of the Franklin fund will be used to update a computer database and to provide for laboratory personnel who have to come back in the middle of the night to carry out procedures. It will also make new technologies available for handling or studying tissues as well as maintaining tissues.

"This support will improve the overall operation," Whetsell said. "It is going to provide us the capability to carry out the procedures necessary on a more timely basis. The additional funding will facilitate a program of very rapid autopsies which makes it possible to do studies that could not be done before, particularly as techniques for molecular biological studies have become available."

It is fairly universally agreed among scientists working in the area of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer¹s and Parkinson¹s that study of the pathology and the biochemical or genetic abnormalities in post-mortem brain tissue is the most important way to gain insight into causative mechanisms."

"It is reasonable to think that information gained from the study of these tissues may lead to the development of therapies, but learning the causes has to come first," he said.

Among the areas of study in Alzheimer¹s, detection of an abnormal protein, which appears to occur in the brain exclusively in Alzheimer¹s has been the subject of several reports from the Neuropathology Laboratory. Whetsell is currently working in a related area evaluating points of connection between brain cells (dendritic spines) in specific brain regions in brains of both Alzheimer¹s and non-Alzheimer¹s patients.

Dr. Thomas Montine, also a neuropathologist and assistant professor of Pathology and Pharmacology, is carrying out studies on abnormal molecules produced in the brain in Alzheimer¹s Disease.

Montine said that since an accurate Alzheimer¹s Disease diagnosis can only be made after death, it would be ideal to have a test that can provide an accurate diagnosis while the patient is still living.

"Now, the best we can do clinically is to provide a Œprobable¹ diagnosis. It would be a major improvement to diagnose or follow progression of the disease while the patient is still alive, but right now postmortem changes are the Œgold standard.¹

"When someone dies, there is a window of opportunity before postmortem changes become so advanced that you can¹t make sense of what is there. Delays beyond 5 hours between death and getting the tissue significantly reduce its usefulness to research. The goal is to make the most out of each very generous postmortem donation. The funds from the Franklin Memorial Fund will allow us to do this for patients with Alzheimer¹s Disease."

Madge Franklin said that her late husband would be happy that he could help support Alzheimer¹s research.

"Bill would be very pleased. I¹m very grateful to those who have contributed," she said. "The fund is a way to support Alzheimer¹s research and Vanderbilt, an institution that was very important to Bill."

Donations are still being accepted for the William W. Franklin Memorial Fund to be used for the brain bank. Donations can be sent to the William W. Franklin Memorial Fund, Division of Neuropathology, T-3218, Medical Center North, VUMC. 37232-2561.