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A BEAUTIFUL MIND - British Columbia Alzheimer's Research Award Program announces awardees

Vancouver, BC The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease affects men and women of all races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. Alzheimer's disease is a fatal, progressive and degenerative disease that destroys brain cells: it is not a normal part of aging and no one is immune. Alzheimer’s accounts for 64 per cent of all dementias in Canada and in BC affects up to 70,000 people.

In December 2013 four organizations came together to develop the British Columbia Alzheimer's Research Award Program. Brain Canada, the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), Genome British Columbia (Genome BC), and The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation (PARF) put together a $7.5 million fund to seek solutions to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Today the collaborators of the program are pleased to announce five awardees from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU):

  • Mirza Faisal Beg (SFU)Novel Retinal Biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease: Dr. Beg and his team aim to develop a new retina imaging device using laser light that could lead to an inexpensive, non-invasive and widely deployable retina exam that could be used to screen individuals on a regular basis for the earliest signs of amyloid in the retina indicative of Alzheimer’s. (Award: $1.5 million)
  • Neil Cashman (UBC) – Structures, Immunology in Alzheimer’s disease: Dr. Cashman’s team will further his lab’s recent discoveries in targeting toxic Abeta oligomers for diagnostics and therapeutics in Alzheimer’s disease. (Award: $1.5 million)
  • James Johnson (UBC) – Does reduced brain insulin production underlie common forms of Alzheimer's disease?: Dr. Johnson and his team will test the hypothesis that insulin produced in the brain is a critical factor for the survival and function of brain cells in the context of both a genetic change that increases Alzheimer’s risk and a diet that increases Alzheimer’s risk. (Award: $1.05 million)
  • Christian Naus (UBC) – Improving the neighbourhood for brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease: Dr. Naus’s team aims to identify unique new drugs which will not only directly target neurons but also enhance the astrocytes’ abilities to protect neurons that are vulnerable to degeneration in Alzheimer’s. (Award: $1.5 million)
  • David Vocadlo (SFU) - Moving Alzheimer’s therapeutic strategy to the clinic: Dr. Vocadlo and his team aim to address the key challenges that would clear the way for a promising new therapeutic target to enable the rapid advance of optimized molecules into formal toxicology studies and downstream trials. (Award: $1.5 million)      

The creativity and vision of these teams offers hope for patients suffering from this incredibly devastating disease.

QUOTES:

BC Health Minister Terry Lake - “Government is committed to supporting those living with dementia and recognizes the importance of research and working collaboratively in finding a cure. I congratulate the award program recipients and know their contributions will help make a difference in the lives of people with the disease as well as their family and friends.”

Honourable James Moore, Minister Responsible for British Columbia, on behalf of the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health, Government of Canada – “Alzheimer’s disease has a very real impact on families here in British Columbia and throughout Canada – from those who suffer from it, to those who support loved ones with the disease. Our Government is proud to support research projects that will improve our knowledge of neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s. I would like to congratulate today’s B.C. research award recipients for taking a lead on this important research.”

Jim Mann, Alzheimer Advocate – “As someone who is living with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease my passion is advocating for myself and others while shattering stereotypes around the disease. These research projects are key to advancing therapies and diagnostic tools for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia: investment into research is critical to our struggle and offers us greater hope than before."

Inez Jabalpurwala, President and CEO, Brain Canada - “Further to our announcement with the Hon. Rona Ambrose on September 12th, the funding we are announcing today showcases British Columbia’s important contributions to the Canadian and global effort to understand the brain and brain diseases. Brain Canada thanks Genome BC, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation, whose support is being matched by the Government of Canada. This significant investment in Alzheimer research in BC is a testament to the success of the Canada Brain Research Fund public-private partnership model. The investment will bring hope to the nearly 15% of Canadians over the age of 65—or about 750,000—who are living with cognitive impairment including dementia, as well as to families and caregivers, who are devoting about 444 million unpaid hours per year.”

Diane Finegood, President and CEO, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research – “We are proud to have spearheaded the creation of this partnership with $1.5 million from the Government of British Columbia targeted to advance research into biological causes and therapeutic treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. The five teams that have been funded by this award represent the best researchers in this field in BC and their research projects hold the promise of great advances in our ability to understand and treat this devastating disease.”

Alan Winter, President and CEO, Genome BC – “Genome BC is investing in research that matters to British Columbians. With our aging population and the burden of dementia on the healthcare system this research is of vital importance with genomics playing a key role in discovery and management of the disease: the range of potential applications from these research projects covers the spectrum from diagnostic tools to disease triggers and treatments.”

B. Lynn Beattie, President, The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation – “This opportunity to invest in Alzheimer's disease research is extremely welcome particularly with the strong partnerships involved from British Columbia and Brain Canada. The application of research to making a difference to persons affected by this insidiously progressive neurodegenerative disorder is imperative and BC researchers will have an impact.”

 

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About Brain Canada
Brain Canada is a national non-profit organization that enables and supports excellent, innovative, paradigm-changing brain research in Canada.  For more than one decade, Brain Canada has made the case for the brain as a single, complex system with commonalities across the range of neurological disorders, mental illnesses and addictions, brain and spinal cord injuries.  Looking at the brain as one system has underscored the need for increased collaboration across disciplines and institutions, and a smarter way to invest in brain research that is focused on outcomes that will benefit patients and families. www.braincanada.ca

The Canada Brain Research Fund is a public-private partnership designed to encourage Canadians to increase their support of brain research, and maximize the impact and efficiency of those investments. Brain Canada has committed to raising $100 million from private and non-governmental sources, which will be matched by government on a 1:1 basis. The Fund was announced in federal budget 2011, which proposed to “allocate up to $100 million to establish the Canada Brain Research Fund, which will support the very best Canadian neuroscience, fostering collaborative research and accelerating the pace of discovery, in order to improve the health and quality of life of Canadians who suffer from brain disorders.”

About Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research
The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research empowers British Columbia’s (BC) best and brightest health researchers to pursue world-class innovation and stretch the bounds of what health research can achieve. Since its inception in 2001, MSFHR has received over $392 million from government to bolster BC’s capacity to develop new treatments and cures; help BC’s health system be more effective and responsive to emerging health threats; and keep BC’s health research sector globally competitive. The Foundation helps BC’s health research community discover solutions to our greatest health challenges; connect knowledge and action; and engage partners to address provincial priorities. Learn more at www.msfhr.org.

About Genome British Columbia
Genome British Columbia is a catalyst for the life sciences cluster on Canada’s West Coast, and manages a cumulative portfolio of over $660M in 211 research projects and science and technology platforms. Working with governments, academia and industry across sectors such as forestry, fisheries, agriculture, environment, bioenergy, mining and human health, the goal of the organization is to generate social and economic benefits for British Columbia and Canada. Genome BC is supported by the Province of British Columbia, the Government of Canada through Genome Canada and Western Economic Diversification Canada and more than 300 international public and private co-funding partners.  www.genomebc.ca

About The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation

The mission of The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation (PARF) is to eradicate Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.  PARF is endeavoring to do this as the result of a grant from the Government of British Columbia and donations from private individuals.  PARF will support scientists whose aim is to achieve this objective. PARF will assist universities, hospitals and other qualified British Columbia institutions to recruit investigators who will devote their efforts to eradicating Alzheimer disease and related dementias. www.parf.ca

 

Contact:

Jennifer Boon
Communications Specialist, Genome BC
Phone: 778-327-8374
Email: jboon@genomebc.ca


BACKGROUNDER / PROJECT DETAILS

Novel Retinal Biomarkers for Alzheimer's Disease

Detecting the beginning of Alzheimer’s in an individual’s brain in the early stages is difficult as the changes in behavior are subtle and hidden. Proper diagnosis is the key to successful treatment. Imaging can show that a brain is filled with a protein called amyloid, which accumulates beyond normal limits in Alzheimer’s. However, brain imaging exams for amyloid are expensive, can be invasive, and not widely available. Some studies have suggested that amyloid also accumulates in the retina of individuals with Alzheimer’s, but this has not been proven. We are proposing to develop a new retina imaging device using laser light that can show the presence of amyloid in the retina. Our work could lead to an inexpensive, non-invasive and widely deployable retina exam that could be used to screen individuals on a regular basis for the earliest signs of amyloid in the retina indicative of Alzheimer’s.

Team Members: Ging-Yuek Hsiung, Marinko Sarunic, Joanne Matsubara, Alan Evans, Gregory Mori, Jinko Graham, Paul Mackenzie, Andrew Merkur, Ian Mackenzie

al1.jpgMirza Faisal Beg
Simon Fraser University
 

Targeting Amyloid Propagation in Alzheimer Disease: Structures, Immunology and Extracellular Vesicle Topology

A treatment or prevention of Alzheimer's disease is a top priority for medical science. Small aggregates of the protein amyloid-beta (A-beta), called oligomers, have been identified as being the primary cause of brain cell death in Alzheimer’s disease. We have identified an A-beta oligomer-specific targeting site, which exclusively detects A-beta oligomers in the brains and spinal fluids of Alzheimer's disease patients. Since we only found A-beta oligomers with our targeting site in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients, it is possible that we have defined a targeting site specific to the A-beta oligomers that cause disease. We will exploit this new knowledge and our unique tools to learn how toxic A-beta oligomers spread from region-to-region in the brain causing disease. This knowledge is critical for the development of therapeutics to block the spread of neurodegeneration in the brain.

Team Members: Cheryl Wellington, Ging-Yuek Hsiung, Weihong Song

al2.jpgNeil Cashman
Brain Research Centre, University of British Columbia

 

Locally produced brain insulin in memory and Alzheimer's disease: A multi-disciplinary approach to a key question

One percent of Alzheimer’s disease is the early-onset type that runs in families. Extensive studies of these ultra-rare forms of Alzheimer’s disease have revealed the genes that cause them. On the other hand, the most common forms of Alzheimer’s disease are surprisingly understudied and poorly understood at the level required for therapeutic intervention. However, it is clear from population levels studies that there are important links between Alzheimer’s disease and obesity, altered fat metabolism, diabetes and insulin. Interestingly, there have been many reports over the years that the brain actually produces a small amount of insulin. Here, we will test the hypothesis that insulin produced in the brain is a critical factor for the survival and function of brain cells in the context of both a genetic change that increases Alzheimer’s risk and a diet that increases Alzheimer’s risk. Our studies are likely to impact our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, potentially revealing a path to a cure.

Team Members: Paul Pavlidis, Shernaz Bamji

al3.jpgJames Johnson
University of British Columbia

 
al4.jpg
Christian Naus
University of British Columbia

Validation of Connexins and Pannexins as a target for Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for over two thirds of cases. There are currently no successful treatments, making the discovery of effective therapeutic interventions critical. The brain contains billions of neurons, and substantially more non-neuronal cells called glia; the major ones relevant to this proposal are astrocytes. While most therapeutic approaches target the neurons to prevent their death, this proposal focuses both on neurons and astrocytes to enhance their ability to protect neurons from death. We specifically propose to target a unique set of membrane channels, formed by connexins and pannexins, in astrocytes and neurons which modulate the extracellular environment in which the cells of the brain must function.  The outcome of these studies will be the identification of unique new drugs which will not only directly target neurons but also enhance the astrocytes’ abilities to protect neurons that are vulnerable to degeneration in AD.

Team Members: Weihong Song, Juan Saez, Christian Giaume, Luc Leybaert

 

 al5.jpg
David Vocadlo
Simon Fraser University

Preclincal development of a disease modifying small molecule therapy for Alzheimer disease

No medications exist that can stop or even slow the progression for Alzheimer Disease (AD). The two pathological hallmarks of AD are protein aggregates deposited in the brain that are known as tangles and plaques. These aggregates form from inappropriately modified forms of the microtubule associated protein tau and peptide fragments, known as Aβ which are generated by cleavage of the amyloid precursor protein (APP). We have recently pioneered a new potential approach that has been shown to block disease progression in animal models of AD by blocking the toxicity of both of Aβ and tau. Our approach centers on a specialized sugar unit that is found attached to nuclear and cytoplasmic proteins, including both tau and APP. Our multidisciplinary team now aims to address the key remaining challenges that would clear the way for a promising new therapeutic target to advance to the clinic.

These findings will enable the rapid advance of these optimized molecules into formal toxicology studies and downstream trials.

Team Members: Gideon Davies, Sharon Gorski, Leonard Foster, Cheng-Xin Gong, Ian Mackenzie, Howard Feldman, Michael Silverman, Ging-Yuek Hsiung, Robert Britton, Cheryl Wellington