NYU Winthrop Hospital’s Research Institute announced that Allison B. Reiss, MD, head of the Inflammation Section, received a $10,000 surprise grant from the Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center to further the very promising Alzheimer’s disease research that Dr. Reiss and her team of physicians and scientists are conducting. Finding treatments and cures for Alzheimer’s disease has been extremely challenging for scientists, since the brain is the most inaccessible and complex organ in the body. Progress achieved using animals in research has rarely been replicated in humans. The cutting-edge research conducted by Drs. Reiss, Aaron Pinkhasov, Irving H. Gomolin, Joshua R. De Leon and Lora Kasselman, however, innovates by using human stem cells reengineered to behave like brain neurons, and in this way NYU Winthrop Hospital believes it will achieve the closest approximation to brain behavior possible. Adding to that innovation, the NYU Winthrop team is incorporating into that neuron research a repurposed drug, originally used to treat leukemia, which unexpectedly was shown to cause memory improvements in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Reiss believes NYU Winthrop’s research may open new windows into slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, which impacts 5 million Americans today. Dr. Reiss also announced that patients are already being enrolled into the NYU Winthrop study.
“We are collecting blood samples from persons with Alzheimer’s disease so that we can add key factors derived from their blood to the reengineered neurons in order to re-create in a cell culture dish the conditions in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient,” Reiss explained. “The result is a unique system with completely human components that is personalized and achieved noninvasively.”
“Trying to find effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease has been like a drought in the desert,” added Dr. Reiss. “We now have a promising new approach that may aid our research efforts toward advancements in treatments to slow and stop this debilitating disease.”
New approaches have long been needed. Dr. Reiss noted that in the last two decades, only a handful of medicines were approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease, while the vast majority of clinical trials—more than 120—were halted. Trials typically rely on research first conducted on mice or using spinal fluid, and those often fail to replicate the complex neurological activity in the human brain. That contrasts with research to find cures for cancers of the liver or lungs, where it is increasingly common for pieces of tissue to be extracted for biopsies—and for profiling of the cancer cells—to come up with the best treatment regimen.
“Allison Reiss has passionately and tirelessly investigated new avenues for advancements in the treatment of Alzheimer’s,” said Mary Ann Malack-Ragona, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center. “Her research is extremely important, and we hope that our grant will aid the NYU Winthrop team’s endeavors to find keys to stop the disease’s progression.”
The Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center is headquartered in Bay Shore and has satellite offices in Garden City, Huntington Station, Lake Success, Southampton, and Valley Stream, New York. The center supports local research that may lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and the organization provides care, support, and educational programs for families in need, as well as serving as an advocate for local families coping with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
NYU Winthrop Hospital’s Research Institute has long been a leader in diabetes research, and it was an offshoot of some of that research that led Dr. Reiss down her current road of Alzheimer’s disease research. Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes share common ground, says Dr. Reiss, with the metabolism of sugar in Alzheimer’s disease patients often found to be abnormal, as with an individual living with diabetes. Brain cells, in fact, can only live if they have a continuous supply of sugar, specifically glucose, which is the same energy source that impacts a person with diabetes. In addition, those with diabetes are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, pointing toward still further connections between the two diseases.
Dr. Reiss’s research using reengineered stem cells has been examining important proteins including those that clump together to form the plaque, or beta-amyloid, found in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. Adding glucose to the brain cells caused such amyloid activity to increase. “Brain cells got upset by high glucose,” added Dr. Reiss. “And if someone has diabetes, adding glucose was like putting gas on a fire in terms of accelerating a proclivity toward Alzheimer’s.”
Wide swings in glucose and insulin, she believes, are especially toxic to brain neurons. The NYU Winthrop team now, with the help of the new grant, can more closely examine the activity of neurons and proteins and the effects of glucose—and key, the team can examine the collective impact on the microglia cells that protect the brain from injury, and experiment with the promising new drug, repurposed from its original use for leukemia.
“By recreating neural interaction that actually occurs in the brain, with supporting cells such as microglia, the discoveries and improvements we hope to make with Alzheimer’s treatment are more likely to be replicated in actual patients suffering from the disease,” noted Dr. Reiss’s colleague at NYU Winthrop, neurobiologist Dr. Lora Kasselman.
According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center, the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease could more than triple in the next 30 years if there is no new breakthrough to prevent or treat the disease. There is hope that even modest progress in treating the disease could drastically change that trajectory. Alzheimer’s disease is also the sixth leading cause of death in U.S. adults, and the cost of treating the disease is estimated to have exceeded $200 billion annually in recent years.