Oct 3, 2022 - News

Historic UNT grant will advance Alzheimer's research

Illustration of a hand holding a petri dish as a magnifying lens up against a brain.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The University of North Texas' Institute for Translational Research has received $150 million — the UNT system's biggest grant ever — from the National Institutes of Health to expand its ongoing Alzheimer's research.

Driving the news: The UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, which houses the Institute for Translational Research, announced the grant last week.

  • UNT says it's one of the largest Alzheimer's studies to date and will incorporate 17 other institutions, including the Alzheimer’s Association, University of Southern California and Columbia University.

Why it matters: The burden of Alzheimer's and related dementias is projected to double between 2018 and 2060 in the U.S., according to the CDC.

  • Among older populations, Black Americans have the highest prevalence of Alzheimer's and related dementias at nearly 14%, followed by Hispanic Americans at 12%, per a prior CDC study.
  • Hispanic Americans develop memory problems earlier than other demographics and are projected to experience a significant increase in Alzheimer’s disease by 2060.

State of play: The institute's executive director, Sid O’Bryant, tells Axios there have been significant strides in our understanding of Alzheimer's thanks to the ability to detect the disease through brain scans, but there's a long way to go.

  • Because a lot of the current research focuses on non-Hispanic, White individuals, O’Bryant says the next step is to see what the disease looks like "from a biological standpoint" for other groups.
  • "We will never get to precision medicine or diagnostics and therapeutics that are appropriate to all communities if we don't include those communities in the science itself," he says.

Details: The UNT study already has 3,000 participants older than 50 and mostly from North Texas.

  • The new NIH funding will enable researchers to add 1,500 participants between ages 30 to 49 and to equally represent African American, Mexican American, and non-Hispanic White populations.
  • Each participant will go through interviews, examinations, clinical laboratory tests, a brain MRI and PET scans for several years. Researchers look for biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease and any other differences among the demographics.

Yes, but: Asian Americans aren't represented in the study, but O’Bryant says that's just due to limited funding and because they aren't as large in the U.S. as the other groups.

What's next: Nearly two decades after taking up Alzheimer's research after his grandmother was diagnosed with it, O’Bryant hopes his study will give participants and their health care providers more clarity into the elusive disease.

  • "The true key, in my opinion, to beating Alzheimer's disease is the very complexity of the disease itself. … If we disentangle those pieces, we'll find novel ways to treat specific individuals and we'll treat their Alzheimer's disease," O’Bryant says.

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