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A new approach to Alzheimer’s

Belfer Family Foundation’s $25 million gift establishes unique research consortium

Promise - Spring 2013

By Sarah Watson

Robert A. And Renee E. Belfer. Photo courtesy of Robert A. BelferA multi-institutional research and drug discovery collaboration is working to lessen the physically and financially debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The Neurodegeneration Consortium (NDC) was created with a $25 million commitment from the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation. Experts at MD Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are uniting to understand the molecular and genetic basis of these diseases and to find more effective treatments.

Recent research has revealed common molecular themes in neurodegeneration, cancer and other age-associated diseases. The NDC will take a new approach to studying and treating such diseases of the aged. Specialized basic science researchers will identify key molecular targets, while MD Anderson’s drug development team at the Institute for Applied Cancer Science will translate these discoveries into viable clinical candidates.

“This is a unique group focused on understanding one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in this century,” says Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson.

“We want to turn research findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients, while ensuring quality of life and helping with the financial challenges of treating and living with Alzheimer’s and other aging diseases,” says Robert A. Belfer, president of the Belfer Family Foundation.  “My hope is that this will be a meaningful, much needed step in finding solutions to this urgent national problem.”

The foundation’s gift is contingent on the consortium partners securing $25 million in matching donations by Jan. 1, 2016. Leading contributors to this effort are:

  • William B. Finneran of New York,
  • the Houston-based MD Anderson Foundation,
  • the annual Polo on the Prairie fundraiser in West Texas,
  • the Houston-based Sterling-Turner Foundation,
  • the Austin-based Topfer Family Foundation, and
  • Mr. and Mrs. Herb Weitzman of Dallas.

The NDC team of investigators includes: (seated, left to right) Joanna Jankowsky, Ph.D., BCM; Hui Zheng, Ph.D., BCM; Lynda Chin, M.D., MDA; Li-Huei Tsai, Ph.D., MIT; Juan Botas, Ph.D., BCM;  (standing, left to right) Ronald DePinho, M.D., MDA; Ming-Kuei Jang, Ph.D., MDA; Giulio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., MDA; Hugo Bellen, D.V.M., Ph.D., TCH, BCM; Huda Zoghbi, M.D., TCH, BCM.  Not pictured: Philip Jones, Ph.D., MDA. Photo by John EverettThe NDC’s establishment marks a turning point, says Baylor’s Huda Zoghbi, M.D., of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine.

“It’s only through such collaborative effort, bringing together complementary expertise, that we stand to make a difference in neurodegenerative disease,” she says.

Li-Huei Tsai, Ph.D., of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, hopes that by combining strengths, the three institutions will make dynamic progress.

“The NDC investigates fundamental mechanisms of neuronal death versus cognitive impairments, as well as nongenetic factors that can cause genes to express themselves differently over time,” says Tsai. “We think we may be close to drug development for novel targets, but we also want to further understand the mechanism of the disease.”

Key NDC research, drug discovery projects target treatment and diagnostics 

Ming-Kuei Jang, Ph.D., IACS associate director of neurobiology. Photo by Adolfo Chavez IIIExciting research is under way through the Neurodegeneration Consortium, says Ming-Kuei Jang, Ph.D., of MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science.  He’s passionate about the inaugural projects — one developing a promising treatment, another a diagnostic tool.

“The consortium’s first drug discovery program focuses on protective mechanisms to prevent neuronal damage,” he says. “While the NDC is focused primarily on generating new therapies and increasing the understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, patients with other neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, will also benefit from such protective therapeutics. Treatment with protective therapeutics could prevent damage, arrest further decline or reduce the degeneration rate depending on when treatment is administered.”

The second project involves detecting neurodegenerative disease in real-time. 

"This diagnostic tool would enable us to see and therefore determine neuronal health at the molecular level. Having this imaging tool available in the clinic would allow for diagnosis even before symptoms occur and would give us the ability to determine if treatment is effective, even before patients report improvements,” he says. “Together with the protective agent currently in development, we could then monitor changes in pathology before and after treatment. Our hope is that if we can understand the dynamics of disease pathology, we can begin to know when to intervene and how to prevent its devastating effects."

Video: youtube.com/mygivingtomdanderson.

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