The numbers are startling:
- 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease.
- Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
- Every 65 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops the disease.
- Early diagnosis could save up to $7.9 trillion in medical costs.
Central Michigan University's Kevin Park is in the thick of the battle against the disease, boosted recently by a National Institutes of Health grant anticipated to reach $144,000 over two years.
The department of psychology faculty member, with the help of his team of graduate and undergraduate students, is developing a new mouse model for testing the disease that will more accurately reflect what happens in humans.
"The ultimate goal is to understand the disease enough that it will put us closer to finding a cure," said Park, who also is part of the neuroscience program in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology program.
Creating a mouse-human model
"Mice don't get Alzheimer's, as far as anyone can tell," Park said.
But to study the disease, scientists have engineered mice that reflect the gene mutations that are in humans who have the inherited version of Alzheimer's, which affects just 5 percent of the Alzheimer's population. Although Alzheimer's consists of both plaques and tangles, the current AD mouse models produce only plaques.
"To know that people who are supposed to be skeptics have backed the research, it's exciting and it keeps you going." — Tomas Barrett, doctoral student
But Park has developed a mouse model that, with its own proteins, will simultaneously create plaque-like and tangle-like pathologies in the absence of the inherited mutated genes, similar to the other 95 percent of humans who get Alzheimer's.
"So, we are going to replace mouse proteins with human proteins and then try to make it worse to display more robust pathological features of the disease," he said.
The idea is that human proteins are more prone to developing plaques and tangles in the mice, making their version of Alzheimer's more similar to humans, he said.
When the researchers get to that point, they will experiment on ways to lessen the disease in those mice and try to transfer that knowledge to human studies, he said.
"The NIH funding shows that people see the need for developing better models," Park said.
Backing 'keeps you going'
To keep the work going, Park has assembled a lab staffed with six to eight undergraduate and graduate students, led by Tomas Barrett, from Ireland. Barrett has master's degrees from CMU in exercise physiology and neuroscience and is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience. He is assisted by experimental psychology doctoral student Joshua Keene.
They breed and test the mice to get the right genetic combination for generating plaques and tangles and gather and help analyze the data. It can be daunting work at times, but the funding adds new excitement, Barrett said.
"For a Ph.D. student to know that people who are supposed to be skeptics have backed the research, it's exciting and it keeps you going."