COLUMBUS — In Dr. Alan Lerner’s eyes, Ohio is growing its Alzheimer’s research capabilities due to a strong foundation.
“Our roots go deep,” Lerner, co-director of the Clinical Core at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and director of the Brain Health and Memory Center at the Neurological Institute of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, said. “Many of the leaders of the field worked in Ohio, grew up in Ohio. Today, I’d say (Ohio) is square in the middle of the pack. The Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center is a huge national acknowledgment of the progress. It’s like, ‘We know you are doing great things. Now you have a seat at the table.’”
Ohio is emerging as a major model of collaboration in the area of Alzheimer’s research as the state’s population living with Alzheimer’s grows. Today, 220,000 Ohioans age 65 and older live with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2025, that number is expected to climb to 250,000.
According to Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association in Ohio Eric VanVlymen, Ohio has fantastic Alzheimer’s research areas and with the availability of research dollars, Ohio has the opportunity to use that funding to be a leader not only for Ohio residents but around the country.
“When research comes to Ohio, that means they are also bringing the latest and greatest techniques to Ohio. If you live here, you have access to those things,” VanVlymen said.
The Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, which was announced in July 2019, is a prime example of bringing together the expertise of some of Ohio’s top Alzheimer’s researchers and clinicians. Funded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center leverages the resources of many of the major health care institutions in northeast Ohio from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Clinic, Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, the MetroHealth System and University Hospitals. It is one of 31 Alzheimer’s Disease Centers around the country.
Prior to its creation, Ohioans had to travel to Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana or Kentucky — the closest states with other Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers — to access the expertise of an NIA-funded Alzheimer’s Research Center.
“At this point, although we are well aware of the expertise at Ohio State and I believe there is some expertise in Toledo as well as down in Cincinnati, the (Research Center) grant itself focuses on northeast Ohio. The focus is really to provide a foundation to expand research on Alzheimer’s and related dementias… It’s creating an infrastructure for research to expand in the area,” Dr. James Leverenz, director of the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Research Center and director of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic, said.
That infrastructure includes developing a structure to share research findings, engaging and enrolling a diverse group of individuals into observational studies, determining if basic science or animal model work can translate to human studies and providing expertise into other dementias like Lewy Body dementia. Data collected in Ohio helps researchers nationwide, Dr. Lerner said.
“The Ohio Center is unique in being connected to the National Prion Center, and that is a wonderful addition to our network. The center also brings additional expertise in Lewy Body dementia to the ADRC program,” Dr. Nina Silverberg, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers Program at the National Institute on Aging, said.
She added that the Cleveland Center’s focus on translational therapeutics, which accelerates promising research into possible drug discoveries, is an area critical to the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center program and will help researchers reach the goal of finding treatments for these devastating diseases as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Dr. Leverenz said the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s connection to the Cleveland-based National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center at Case Western Reserve University is important because there are things researchers can learn from Prion diseases that can shed insight into Lewy Body dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Additionally, Dr. Leverenz also leads the first U.S.-based Dementia with Lewy Bodies Consortium, a National Institutes of Health-funded project with 10 sites around the country. An estimated 1.4 million Americans have Lewy Body dementia, which has some symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease, which affects approximately 5.8 million Americans, is a fatal brain disease that currently cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.
“Before COVID, we had two epidemics, we had the opioid epidemic and we have the Alzheimer’s epidemic… In my career, I have seen the number of Alzheimer’s cases go from 2 million to 4 million, and now we are almost at 6 million. We need some version of flattening the curve,” Dr. Lerner said.
At The Ohio State University, Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the Division of Cognitive Neurology and Director of the Center for Cognitive and Memory Disorders, said the university has a strong track record in clinical research in areas such as genetics, pre-clinical diagnostic measures, imaging, health disparities and drug trials. He said he is seeing great new collaborations and innovations happening because researchers in other medical fields like cancer are bringing their techniques to the field of Alzheimer’s research.
“Since Congress has increased the budgets for the NIA there definitely has been an uptick of collaborative research here at Ohio State,” Dr. Scharre said. “It encourages individuals who may not have been working directly in the Alzheimer’s field to say, ‘I think I can apply my techniques and talents to the Alzheimer’s field,’ which is what we need.”
The Alzheimer’s Association, which is the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer’s disease research, has lobbied extensively for increased federal funding for Alzheimer’s and related dementia research at the National Institutes of Health. Since 2011, annual federal Alzheimer’s research funding has increased from $448 million to $2.8 billion nationwide.
Ohio is getting a good share of the funding. According to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, an organization that each year publishes a ranking of National Institutes of Health grant awards, last year Ohio ranked No. 10 in the nation for NIH awards.
In addition, between 1993 and 2020, the Alzheimer’s Association has funded about $16 million in Ohio research projects.
Philanthropy and money from drug companies also drive new research initiatives. For example, on June 18, the Cleveland Clinic and The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement opened the nation’s first Alzheimer’s prevention clinic for women at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Los Vegas. It is a philanthropy-driven effort.
Dr. Scharre said Alzheimer’s disease advances will follow the money.
“It depends entirely on how much money goes into this,” he said. “Nothing moves without funds. If you just keep the funds where they are, it will take a longer time.”