UC Davis professors working to improve the early diagnosis and detection of Alzheimer’s awarded grants

UC Davis professors working to improve the early diagnosis and detection of Alzheimer’s awarded grants

Photo Credits: UC DAVIS HEALTH / COURTESY

California Department of Public Health awards grants to two research teams focused on studying Alzheimer’s disease

Worldwide, 44 million people have Alzheimer’s disease, with 5.5 million of them living in the U.S, according to Alzheimers News Today. Women make up two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease. In comparison to white individuals, African-Americans are about twice as likely and Hispanic individuals are about 1.5 times as likely to have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Since Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., researchers recognize the importance of understanding this disease. UC Davis joins the scientific quest to make research more inclusive, as UC Davis professors Brittany Dugger and Angela Zivkovic work to improve the early diagnosis and detection of Alzheimer’s disease in women and communities of color. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Chronic Disease Control Branch awarded two grants to their separate research endeavors. 

Dementia encapsulates a variety of symptoms that affect mental cognitive tasks, such as memory and reasoning. Dementia can occur due to a variety of conditions, with the most common being Alzheimer’s disease, according to Healthline.com.

Dugger, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UC Davis Health, leads a three-year study across several UC campuses that aims to enhance and develop machine learning approaches for detecting and diagnosing dementia. These computer systems will store images of brains and contain programs for detecting and quantifying blood vessel abnormalities in brain tissues associated with dementia. 

By studying the brains of deceased individuals with Alzheimer’s, researchers can understand how the amount, location and presence or absence of certain proteins and pathologies within the brain affect a person’s symptoms during their life, Dugger said. 

“We understand how certain brains are similar and different,” Dugger said. “By understanding how this heterogeneity can aid in precision medicine approaches, [doctors can get] the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.”

Another main goal of the research team is to investigate how these blood vessel abnormalities and how symptoms differ between genders, races and backgrounds, Dugger said. The $1,726,383 project includes colleagues at other UC campuses, including UC San Francisco, UC Irvine and UC Los Angeles. By combining brain samples from these universities, researchers can study a more diverse data set, including brains from African-Americans and individuals of Hispanic heritage. 

“We tried to divide and conquer,” Dugger said. “If we want individualized precision medicine, we need to study diverse cohorts. Many studies can be biased as they may only have subjects from select sociodemographic and ethno-racial groups.”

Another main goal of the research is to understand how the blood vessel abnormalities may relate to other diseases in patients, such as diabetes and hypertension, Dugger said. 

“We can use our data to relate to clinical findings, providing more in-depth analysis of diseases which can then lead to better treatments for all individuals,” Dugger said. 

The CDPH also awarded a separate grant of $277,921 to a one-year study led by Zivkovic, an assistant professor of nutrition in the college of agricultural and environmental sciences. This study aims to find new ways to detect and treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Zivkovic studies the evolution of dementia across disease stages through a liquid biopsy-guided strategy, meaning studying blood samples, to boost the development of specific prevention therapies for Alzheimer’s. Her study specifically looks at whether Vitamin D plays a role in the development and cognitive function of Alzheimer’s disease in patients. 

The liquid biopsy approach allows scientists to study inaccessible tissues and organs that you can not take samples of, like the brain. This technique involves blocking samples in the bloodstream, drawing blood, and then studying the sample to retrieve information about the inaccessible tissue or organ. 

“Most people are familiar with and are pretty okay with getting their blood drawn,” Zivkovic said. “We are working with that and trying to better assess what is going on in a different part of the body just by sampling the blood.”

Zivkovic is also studying how high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles relate to Alzheimer’s disease. HDL particles are responsible for transporting lipid (fat) molecules around the body. Zivkovic’s team isolates HDL particles and studies how well they can transport extra cholesterol away from blood, which may have an impact on Alzheimer’s disease. 

“It will tell us more about Alzheimer’s patients and we can see whether the way their proteins are decorated what is going wrong in the process,” Zivkovic said.

Due to budget and timing constraints, Zivkovic said the scope of the project is smaller than proposed. The study will only look at the baseline values of cognition and Vitamin D status of a subset of 180 subjects both with and without Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is difficult to fund these projects,” Zivkovic said. “We will not be able to answer all of the questions. We are not funded to look at how specific functions would improve cognitive function.”

Like Dugger’s study, Zivkowic’s research works towards creating precision medicine by recruiting over 50% of their data cohort from minorities and women, two groups underrepresented in medical research.

“I am excited the California Department of Public Health is investing in research on women and underrepresented monitories and understand what is going on,” Zivkovic said. “Treatment approaches will be different depending on who you are, and I am happy to be a part of the process.”

During the 2019-20 fiscal year, CDPH awarded six other grants to UC researchers across campuses, according to a UC Davis Health press release. Their studies focus on disease prevention, caregiving, long term services and support systems for populations suffering from health disparities. 

As one of the only 31 research centers designated by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Aging, UC Davis’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center provides vital research towards improving diagnoses, treatments and preventions for this wide spread disease. 

“I am humbled and honored to spearhead such an extraordinary project alongside so many leaders in the field,” Dugger said. “We thank the people of California for supporting dementia research to alleviate the burdens of these devastating diseases for all individuals.”

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — science@theaggie.org

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