“My goal is to help cure Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dennis Selkoe, MD, whose life’s work and passion is Alzheimer’s research.
With the hospital’s Center for Neurologic Diseases moving into the new Brigham Building for the Future, along with BWH’s other neurology researchers, Selkoe and his team will benefit from the state-of-the-art facilities and collaborative environment.
According to Science Watch, which tracks trends in scientific paper citations, Selkoe’s work ranks number one in total citations of all Alzheimer’s research published in journals around the world. That’s because the co-director of the Brigham’s Center for Neurologic Diseases and the Vincent and Stella Coates Professor of Neurologic Diseases at Harvard Medical School helped pioneer the “amyloid hypothesis” of Alzheimer’s. It posits that a protein fragment called amyloid beta is the disease’s trigger. He and his colleagues then made several key discoveries supporting this concept.
To demonstrate the amyloid hypothesis, Selkoe uses a Bic™ pen with its cap and clasp representing the amyloid parent protein, which sits in the walls of all nerve cells, with the body of the pen sticking out. A normal biochemical process—discovered by Selkoe and colleagues at BWH—causes the amyloid parent protein, represented by the pen, to be cut by two enzymes, allowing the pen clasp, which represents the amyloid beta fragment, to be released from the pen. Once released, this fragment can stick to others of its kind, gradually building up to become the hallmark amyloid plaques that reduce brain function, especially memory.
Through the Center for Neurologic Diseases, Selkoe works closely with colleagues Reisa Sperling, MD, director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment, and Kirk Daffner, MD, chief of BWH’s Division of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, to diagnose, treat, and ultimately prevent Alzheimer’s. “Our mission now is to lead the world in translating laboratory research into smart clinical trials,” Selkoe says.
As a compelling example, the BWH-led Anti-Amyloid in Antecedent Alzheimer’s trial is the first prevention trial for conventional Alzheimer’s, now starting up in 50 sites across the United States. The trial is based on promising preliminary results and Sperling’s thoughtful design, but the price tag is staggering—a whopping $120 million. Funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private sector contributions have given the project the green light, and Sperling and Selkoe continue to seek philanthropic partners to support the trial, which could have meaningful results for humanity. “Our quest to prevent Alzheimer’s is most simply put as a quest not to lose our most human qualities—our memory, judgment, and emotional stability,” Selkoe says.
The Brigham Building for the Future is a catalyst to further this and other research and drug trials in dementia. “This will be one of the very first buildings in the country to have both a major clinic and a major research lab for Alzheimer’s disease in the same place,” he says.