Huffington Foundation gives $5 million to Neurodegeneration Consortium

Supports unique approach to treating, detecting Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative diseases

MD Anderson News Release 08/13/13

The Huffington Foundation has committed $5 million to the Neurodegeneration Consortium (NDC), a multi-institutional collaboration to study and treat Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

The NDC was established with an inaugural $25 million challenge gift from the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Belfers’ commitment is contingent on the consortium partners raising a matching $25 million in private philanthropy. The Huffington Foundation leads the way in this effort, bringing total matching contributions to more than $15 million.

The Huffington Foundation has a long history of supporting institutions in the Texas Medical Center, including Baylor’s Huffington Center on Aging and the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital. The foundation’s generosity is a major boost to the NDC and its unique approach to the study of neurodegenerative diseases. Its support will help the NDC advance effective targeted treatments for people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and chemotherapy induced neuropathy.

“We are deeply grateful to the Huffington Foundation for supporting our efforts to find out how and why neurodegenerative diseases develop and to find the key steps to prevent or slow disease progression,” said Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “Our aim is to find new therapies through novel research, and we’re on a fast track to achieve that, thanks to our colleagues at Baylor and MIT and due in large part to supporters such as the Huffington Foundation who understand the importance of philanthropy as the driving force behind this initiative.”

Recent work in neurodegeneration, cancer and other age-associated diseases has revealed common molecular themes in their genesis. Through an improved understanding of the biology driving the development of these diseases, the NDC aims to generate treatments that may be effective across many diseases associated with advanced age.

The NDC provides an optimal setting for drug discovery breakthroughs. The consortium allows for the seamless integration of novel target discovery activities in the basic science laboratories of Baylor, MIT and MD Anderson with the drug discovery engine of MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS). Researchers at Baylor, MIT and MD Anderson will share their most promising discoveries, while IACS will in turn translate these findings into the next generation of targeted drugs and diagnostics for neurodegeneration.

NDC collaborators are using cutting-edge genomic technology to identify new molecular targets to combat neurodegenerative diseases. Specifically, investigators are undertaking the massive task of inhibiting and interrogating thousands of genes, one at a time, to identify those that decrease levels of the disease-driving proteins. For example, Baylor College of Medicine’s Huda Zoghbi, M.D., and her team are conducting high throughput screens in three model systems: human cells, fruit flies and transgenic mice. They will integrate this information with data from the human genome to identify promising targets for new therapies.

“Neurodegenerative disorders are devastating and challenging, hence the need for team efforts and new integrated research strategies to tackle them. The Huffington Foundation gift is a huge boost to this team effort and to the science charting the path to discovery of new therapeutic entry points,” said Zoghbi, who also is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.

Li-Huei Tsai, Ph.D., director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, is investigating factors that may be major instigators of neurodegenerative disease with a specific focus on epigenetic mechanisms.

“To date, there is no effective treatment that can prevent or delay neurodegenerative disorders,” said Tsai. “We’re grateful for the Huffington Foundation’s gift, which will increase the Neurodegeneration Consortium’s capacity to discover novel drug targets and effective therapeutic interventions.”

At MD Anderson, researchers are exploring how changes in the aging process can impact disease development and devising strategies to reverse the process.

The IACS’ inaugural drug discovery project, led by Ming-Kuei Jang, Ph.D., and Philip Jones, Ph.D., focuses on neuronal protection, which will engage innate protective mechanisms that promote the health of neurons following injury and aging. This strategy is promising as it could have a broad impact on patients with various neurodegenerative diseases, as well as cancer patients suffering from neuropathy. A second project, currently under evaluation, aims to develop diagnostic tools to detect neurodegenerative disease earlier, even before symptoms occur, and to determine response to innovative therapies.