BC Alzheimer’s Research Award Program announces awardees

21 November 2014

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). Their projects are described below.

Mirza Faisal Beg (SFU)

Project title: Novel Retinal Biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease

Award: $1.49 million

Detecting the early stages of Alzheimer’s in an individual’s brain is difficult, as the changes in behaviour are subtle and can be managed by the patient.

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 patients with Alzheimer’s. However, brain imaging exams for amyloid are expensive, can be invasive, and are not widely available.

Dr. Beg and his team will develop a new retina (eye) imaging device using laser light that can show the presence of amyloid in the retina. Their work could lead to an inexpensive, non-invasive and widely deployable retina exam that could be used to screen individuals on a regular basis to detect the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s.

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

Neil Cashman (UBC)

Project title: Targeting Amyloid Propagation in Alzheimer Disease: Structures, Immunology & Extracellular Vesicle Topology

Award: $1.49 million

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.

Dr. Cashman and his research team will use their 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 spread of therapeutics to block the spread of neurodegeneration in the brain.

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

James Johnson (UBC)

Project title: Locally produced brain insulin in memory & Alzheimer’s disease: A multi-disciplinary approach to a key question

Award: $1.05 million

Population-level studies indicate that there are important links between Alzheimer’s disease and obesity, altered fat metabolism, diabetes, and insulin.

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.

His team’s studies are likely impact our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, potentially revealing a new path towards a cure.

Team members: Paul Pavlidis, Shernaz Bamji

Christian Naus (UBC)

Project title: Validation of Connexins and Pannexins as a target for Alzheimer’s Disease

Award: $1.5 million

The brain contains billions of neurons. While most therapeutic approaches to Alzheimer’s target the neurons to prevent their death, this project will focus both on neurons and astrocytes to enhance their ability to protect neurons from death.

Dr. Naus and his team will target a unique set of membrane channels 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 Alzheimer’s.

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

David Vocadlo (SFU)

Project title: Preclinical development of a disease-modifying small molecule therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

Award: $1.5 million

The two pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are protein aggregates deposited in the brain that are known as tangles and plaques.

Dr. Vocadlo and his team recently pioneered a new potential approach that has been shown to block Alzheimer disease progression in the lab by blocking the toxicity of certain peptides and proteins.

The 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

“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.”

  • Terry Lake, BC Health Minister

“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.”

  • Honourable James Moore, Minister Responsible for British Columbia, on behalf of the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of Health, Government of Canada

“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.”

  • Jim Mann, Alzheimer Advocate

“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.”

  • Inez Jabalpurwala, President and CEO, Brain Canada

“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.”

  • Diane Finegood, President and CEO, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research

“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.”

  • Alan Winter, President and CEO, Genome BC

“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.”

  • B. Lynn Beattie, President, The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation

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

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