As an active member of the Rotary Club of Aiken, I recently attended a Rotary District conference in Greenville, SC. Among the speakers was Dr. Ben Bahr, a University of North Carolina – Pembroke Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. He addressed the conference about his very promising research on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, research funded through the Rotary CART program.
As noted in the last month’s issue of Bella, the Rotary Club of Aiken participates in the Coins for Alzheimer’s Research Trust (CART) program. Rotary is an international organization dedicated to “Service Above Self,” boasting about 1.2 million members worldwide. The CART program began in 1995 as the idea of a Sumter, South Carolina, Rotarian who wanted to make a difference in the world. His concept was that fellow Rotarians could drop their spare pocket change into a CART bucket at weekly Rotary meetings, and the money would go to fund Alzheimer’s research. The impact of that idea has been tremendous. To date, more than $5.8 million has been awarded in CART grants for cutting-edge research.
And the results of Dr. Ben Bahr’s CART-funded research might be about to change the world, indeed. What follows is a summary of his presentation.
Why Won’t These Darn Eggs Cook?
The first patient to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease was Auguste Deter, a 51-year-old German woman. Her husband took her to see a psychiatrist because, he observed, Auguste would crack eggs into the frying pan for his breakfast, and then inexplicably place the pan onto the countertop and wait for the eggs to cook.
The name of the consulting psychiatrist? Dr. Alois Alzheimer. He conducted a series of interviews with Auguste, noting her confusion, poor memory, withdrawal and paranoia. He continued to see her for five years, until her death in 1906. Then, Dr. Alzheimer did something rather extraordinary for a psychiatrist – he asked permission to autopsy her brain upon her death.
When he examined her brain cells under a microscope, he noted strange mutations in the brain’s neurons. Neurons are the brain cells’ way of connecting with one another to relay information to one another – exactly what we depend on our brains to do. Normal brain cell neurons consist of multiple outward-branching connections (as shown in this picture).
In Auguste Deter’s brain cells, however, Dr. Alzheimer detected strange formations. Instead of the multiple branches of normal neurons, he noticed that her neurons instead ended in tangles and knots (as hand drawn by Dr. Alzheimer himself).
Dr. Alois Alzheimer
Dr. Alzheimer published details of Auguste Deter’s case and other similar cases in 1911, linking psychological symptoms with physical changes in brain anatomy. Only five years later, however, Dr. Alzheimer died a premature death. His research materials and records were stored away, to be rediscovered 90 years later at the Munich Medical School where he had done his research. Included were samples of Auguste Deter’s brain tissue and all of Alzheimer’s notes.
Brain Cells’ Waste Disposal System
Dr. Bahr noted that researchers have learned quite a lot about Alzheimer’s disease over the years. We now know that tangles are associated with buildups of excess proteins termed amyloid plaques. Our brains are protein-processing machines. They feed on proteins, and for most of us, our brain cells take the nutrition they need from incoming proteins and eliminate the rest as waste.
Dr. Ben Bahr
In Alzheimer’s patients, however, the waste disposal system begins to fail. This results in an unhealthy accumulation of waste proteins that eventually prevent individual brain neurons from connecting with their neighbors, essentially cutting them off from performing their functions. As individual cells get overwhelmed with waste proteins, they begin affecting nearby brain cells, eventually shutting them down as well.
In fact, most drugs developed to treat Alzheimer’s patients focus on trying to dissolve these plaques and unknot the tangles. However, according to Science Magazine, more than 99 percent of clinical trials for Alzheimer’s drugs have failed.
While the numbers of deaths from stroke, heart disease and cancer are falling, the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease has increased 66 percent because people are living longer.
Restarting the Waste Disposal System
On May 6, 2014, Dr. Bahr was awarded a Rotary CART grant in the amount of $100,000. He has used this funding to study a new class of enzymes intended to re-energize brain cells’ lysosomes, the elements responsible for disposal of waste proteins.
His results have been remarkable. In recent laboratory results, his drug (abbreviated PADK) has shown a 71% recovery of brain cell synaptic function. That is, in 100 brain neurons that have become tangled with plaques, he has been able to restore function in 71 of them! His drug may be the first that holds the promise of not only stopping the progression of the disease but of actually reversing it!
And what is possibly just as exciting is that PADK restores lysosomes’ waste disposal function in all parts of the brain. That matters, because if affected cells are in the portion of the brain that regulates long-term memory, we name the disease Alzheimer’s. If the affected cells are in the portion of the brain that controls motor function, we name the disease Parkinson’s. If the affected cells are in the portion of the brain that controls vision, we name the disease macular degeneration. Wow!
Dr. Bahr is now beginning to receive interest from big pharmaceutical companies interested in funding the necessary clinical trials. His research offers hope that we may be on the verge of a breakthrough in treating this degenerative disease.
What an amazing result from donations of pocket change!
Karen Guevara is a retired executive from the Department of Energy, where she most recently served as a Savannah River Site senior manager. She spent much of her federal career in Washington, D.C., including a stint in the White House Office of Management and Budget. She has wisely decided to remain in Aiken where she is an active Rotarian, recreational golfer, choir singer, and budding writer.