Buck Institute in Marin County gets $14.3M grant to help fight against Alzheimer’s, dementia

The role of a cell that roams through the body and can lead to inflammation is going to be studied under a $14.3 million grant awarded to the Buck Institute, allowing its researchers to study the cell’s role — and potential therapies — in Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related dementia, according to the Novato-based research lab.

The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Aging will fund three research projects to study cellular senescence — a process where a stressed cell stops dividing but doesn’t die.  The stress at the root of cellular senescence can stem from damaged skin cells that get too much sun, from an unhealthy diet or from the body’s attempt to shut down a cell that could become cancerous.

Over time, large numbers of old — or senescent — cells can build up in tissues throughout the body, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“The cells remain active and can release harmful substances that may cause inflammation and damage to nearby healthy cells,” an agency publication said. “Senescence may play a role in the development of cancer and other diseases,” like Alzheimer’s and other age-related dementia.

Buck Institute professors Lisa Ellerby and Judith Campisi are the primary recipients of the NIH grant. They will lead a team of Buck faculty and scientists in the work.

“We’re going to look at whether we can prevent senescence cells from forming in the brain and if we can clear these cells to prevent the onset of age-related diseases — in this case Alzheimer’s disease,” said Ellerby, a neuroscientist and expert on the technology that goes into the research.

The grant will allow the team to look for therapeutics that are centered on the senescence by using a number of technologies that could possibly treat Alzheimer’s disease, Ellerby said.

Because those cells come directly from an Alzheimer’s patient, the lab work involved will help researchers better understand some of the aspects of aging and Alzheimer’s disease, Ellerby said. One of those technologies, for example, involves taking those skin cells and reprogramming them into stem cells — a technology called induced pluripotent stem cells.

Alzheimer’s disease affects 6.2 million people over the age of 65 in the United States, Ellerby said, noting there is more than one type of Alzheimer’s, so the severity of the disease can vary among patients.

Another of the research projects the grant is funding will focus on dementia, according to the Buck’s Sept. 29 press release announcing the NIH grant.

“Age is the largest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” said Campisi, a biochemist. The objective of her team’s work is to uncover new mechanisms that can be developed into interventions to treat patients. “The need for new approaches to Alzheimer’s and other age-related neurodegeneration is clear, given that there are no therapeutics that effectively treat or prevent these conditions.” Neurodegeneration is the slow and progressive loss of cells in specific parts of the brain.

Dr. Eric Verdin, Buck president and CEO, is heading another research project funded by the grant, which will advance the research of his lab that studies the relationship between aging and the immune system. His team will focus on changes in systemic and cellular metabolism as they relate to neurodegeneration and inflammation.

Verdin in the grant announcement called the project a “quintessential example” of the Buck’s strength.

“It brings together researchers with diverse expertise, all of whom are acknowledged leaders in contemporary aging research and have a history of productive collaborations,” Verdin said. “I could not be more proud of this team and am thrilled that the NIH is bringing research on aging into the fight against Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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