Financial donations from women have made possible an early scientific discovery that could have an impact on Alzheimer’s research.
It brings new hope to the fight against this and related diseases wreaking havoc on those with memory loss. Dementia has emerged as one of the great medical challenges of our time.
Women account for two-thirds of those with dementia, as well as the majority of caretakers.
A research grant from the Circle of Giving, and a donation from the board of the female-owned McGee Wealth Management firm, have led to two more grants for OHSU scientist Philip Copenhaver, PhD, to continue his research. He is the scientist chosen by the Circle for their donations.
Copenhaver is a professor of cell, developmental and cancer biology, and director of the cell and developmental biology graduate program at OHSU.
His basic research is showing promise in possibly protecting brain neurons against toxic proteins linked to Alzheimer’s. He works in collaboration with scientist and neurologist Dr. Joseph Quinn, who coordinates clinical trials at OHSU and is director of the Movement Disorder Center.
Funding for women
Circle of Giving was conceived to meet the needs of the OHSU Center for Women’s Health for funding specifically about the female body. It is a group of like-minded women who each contribute $5,000 a year to underwrite basic research.
“It’s only been 20 years that researchers have focused on women’s bodies,” says Linette Dobbins, president and COO of McGee Wealth Management. “Women have different hormones and require different treatments for strokes and heart attacks.”
Dobbins’s mother, Judith McGee, operates as CEO of McGee. Jennifer Currin Gut-ridge is a senior advisor. They are native Oregonians — and together they are the first corporate sponsors to the Circle of Giving.
They also have a personal stake in women’s health research. Dobbins and McGee are breast cancer survivors, and McGee’s grandmother died of breast and lung cancer. “Research is a passion of mine,” Dobbins says.
Funding for Alzheimer’s research is in dire need because, by 2050, caring for victims could bankrupt the healthcare system, Copenhaver says.
Discoveries in dementia
Along with his collaborators, Copenhaver is investigating the potential of STX, a novel selective activator of estrogen receptors that may protect the brain against brain disease. STX is a new type of selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM) that lacks estrogen risks.
The ultimate goal of their research is to see whether STX can be used as an alternative to estrogen for protecting against dementia in both women and men.
Copenhaver says that he and Quinn would not have started this research without the suggestion from their colleagues, the husband and wife team of Dr. Martin Kelly and Dr. Oline Rønnekleiv.
“They were doing research on developing new drugs for estrogen replacement therapy, and found that STX might also be beneficial for protecting the brain in a variety of diseases,” Copenhaver says. “They said we should test it as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. They should be credited with the idea.”
The good news, he says, is they found that STX does protect isolated brain cells (in mice) against the toxic effects of amyloid, which many people think may cause Alzheimer’s disease. Their first experiments in animals (mice) have also found that it can be safely given orally for many months. These simple tests are the first steps in a long process.
The results are “so far, so good,” Copenhaver says. “We are years away to see if it works perfectly on humans —at least seven to 10 years if on the fast-track. STX has promising effects, but we make no claims for a cure of Alzheimer’s. We hope it does.”
Their work was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016. They are now testing whether STX can prevent the loss of ATP production (the source of cellular energy) in the brain. If so, STX might be used to block the vicious cycle that makes brain cells sick and die in Alzheimer’s disease.
Although increased toxic amyloid in the brain is strongly linked with Alzheimer’s disease, no one really understands what triggers the build-up of amyloid or how to prevent it.
Current clinical trials are testing whether modified antibodies can be used to reduce amyloid levels, but this approach may not be enough to prevent the progression of dementia. STX might therefore provide another tool for preventing or treating Alzheimer’s and related brain diseases, Copenhaver says.
In the meantime, the good news is that there are things we can do to protect ourselves, he says.
Moderate, regular exercise and eating a healthy, balanced diet can help maintain brain health. There is also evidence that keeping our brains active and stimulated with new challenges may increase our “cognitive reserve,” which helps strengthen resilience of the brain.
Many doctors believe that when it comes to the brain, “use it or lose it.”
Staying mentally and physically active can benefit the brain in many ways: it helps maintain a healthy blood supply to the brain, reduces the risk of inflammation, and stimulates nerve cell connections, he says.
Unfortunately, current drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease help manage symptoms but don’t slow the progression of the disease; so new tools for early diagnosis and treatment are critically needed.