Cancer and Alzheimer’s both are age-related diseases, but people who get one are less likely to get the other, says MD Anderson scientist Jim Ray, Ph.D.
“It’s true – people who have Alzheimer’s are less likely to develop cancer, and people who’ve had cancer are less likely to get Alzheimer’s,” says Ray, who heads Neuroscience Research at MD Anderson’s Institute for Applied Cancer Science.
Ray and colleagues think cancer and Alzheimer’s are opposite ends of the aging spectrum.
“In cancer, cells that are supposed to die won’t; and in Alzheimer’s, cells that are supposed to live don’t. Thinking about these diseases this way creates a tremendous opportunity for both fields,” he says.
Ray leads the Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from MD Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The consortium was launched in 2012 with a $25 million gift from the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation to better understand the underlying biology of Alzheimer’s disease and turn that knowledge into effective therapies for patients. The development of new, beneficial therapies has been rare, Ray says, but he’s inspired by the cancer care successes he’s seen at MD Anderson.
“It’s been 14 years since an Alzheimer’s drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and even at that, the drugs we have don’t slow the disease,” he says. “In contrast, new cancer drugs are being approved on what seems like a monthly basis. Being at MD Anderson gives those of us conducting Alzheimer’s research an important opportunity to learn from that success.”
One way that cancer research may help Alzheimer’s patients is through the study of chemobrain, a common side effect of chemotherapy that causes problems with thinking and short-term memory.
“It’s projected there will be more cancer survivors with chemobrain than Alzheimer’s patients in a few years,” Ray says. “We have to find ways to promote healthy brain aging and protect the nervous system from the damaging effects of chemotherapy.”
The collaborative nature of the Neurodegeneration Consortium promises to speed up such discoveries by sharing promising findings across its three institutions.
And continued support is helping to fund the work. The Belfer Foundation followed up its initial gift with another $3.5 million in 2015. And in 2016, the M.D. Anderson Foundation has given $500,000 to the consortium. In addition, support from MD Anderson donors has totaled more than $25 million.