Breaking Through - Uncovering New Treatments for Alzheimer's Disease

The Litwin-Zucker Center and the Feinberg Initiative play a key role in uncovering new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

Over 5 million people in the United States currently have Alzheimer’s disease, and the number of affected individuals is expected to climb to 11-16 million by 2050 as a result of the aging population and increased life expectancy. Due to the complexity of the disease, many speculate that it is unlikely that any one intervention will be found to delay, prevent or cure it.

With this in mind, the Litwin-Zucker Center for the Study of Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders was established in 2004, devoted to figuring out Alzheimer’s disease at every level—from basic biology to clinical response to medications. Part of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, the center was developed through the generosity and vision of Ruth Litwin, associate trustee Leonard Litwin and system trustees Donald and Barbara Hrbek Zucker. They collaborated with Peter Davies, PhD, a world-renowned researcher, to design a large research and clinical program that brings scientific discoveries to the patients and families that are struggling with this debilitating illness. In order to develop treatment, scientists need to have a basic understanding of the science behind the disease and the ability to test drugs on groups of patients. Few Alzheimer’s disease centers can match the Litwin-Zucker Center’s strong working combination of state-of-the-art science and clinical laboratories.

Through the continued support of the Litwins and the Zuckers, the center has launched several long-term trials to study different aspects of Alzheimer’s. While several of the programs at the Litwin-Zucker Center are collaborations with other institutions across the world, many of the research projects are unique. Scientists at the center have an international reputation for innovative research, and their work is frequently cited by the wider research community. One such example is the Genetics Program study, which is looking at the role specific genes play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This study will look for genes that put people at risk for Alzheimer’s in order to identify the early warning signs and the exact moment the disease develops in the brain. Studies like these being conducted at the center are leading the way towards understanding the causes of Alzheimer’s and ultimately developing an effective treatment.

The research program continues to grow exponentially. The center is committed to understanding the basic biological processes that happen in the brain in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease and discovering what factors make the brains of some individuals more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. The hope is to discover the genes that put people at risk and identify ways to better diagnose, treat and follow patients through the disease process. In recognition of this goal and the groundbreaking work being conducted by Dr. Davies, Mildred and Frank Feinberg decided to underwrite a project to uncover the genetic basis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2011. Established in loving memory of Mrs. Feinberg’s mother, Esther Corman, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, the Feinberg Initiative will advance the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

The Feinberg Initiative is an international program with the goal of providing a complete description of the genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. This four-year project will attempt to sequence the genomes of 1,000 patients with Alzheimer’s, which would then be compared to the genomes of a control group without the disease. Dr. Davies explained that the initiative presents a “very challenging undertaking to sequence the genome of a 1,000 people, but we’ve made a tremendous start in this amazing project.” Very little is currently known about the genetic susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease. This undertaking will help to assess an individual’s lifetime risk of developing the disease and allow scientists to develop effective strategies for early detection and targeted treatment. All data resulting from this project will be made freely available to the scientific community, allowing investigators to collaborate worldwide.

With the goal set on developing a truly effective treatment to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, philanthropic support makes it possible for scientists at the Litwin-Zucker Center to have the necessary resources to perform tests and make discoveries. Dr. Davies explains that the field as a whole right now is incredibly exciting and he is optimistic that “something is going to break soon.” The advances and knowledge, particularly over the past five years, have yielded promising results in the effort to develop a drug that will lengthen the time of protection, thereby stopping the progression of Alzheimer’s. Dr. Davies affirms, “No one group will solve Alzheimer’s, but through the long-term support of donors, we can continue to be a major contributor to the understanding of this disease and develop new therapies to treat patients.”

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