DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Seattle today, three research institutions are unveiling a joint effort to learn precisely how Alzheimer's disease gets started in the brain. The project is part of a widespread do-over for the field of Alzheimer's research, which has endured the series of failed attempts to develop a treatment. Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: A decade ago, there was a lot of excitement about experimental drugs that could scrub away the sticky brain plaques thought to cause Alzheimer's. The drugs did their job. But they didn't prevent the disease. And Ed Lein of the Allen Institute for Brain Science says that tells us something.
ED LEIN: We simply don't understand the system we're trying to treat very well. We're trying to go right to the cure without really understanding the brain and what actually goes wrong that leads to dementias.
HAMILTON: So the National Institute on Aging has awarded a $40 million grant to create a center run by the Allen Institute and two other Seattle institutions, UW Medicine and Kaiser Permanente. Lein is the center's lead investigator.
LEIN: The premise of this project here is that we need to take a step back.
HAMILTON: Lein says the idea is to use technology pioneered at the Allen Institute to study brains donated by people who died with Alzheimer's disease.
LEIN: We have tools that let us understand all of the kinds of cells that make up parts of the brain. And we can now use these tools to understand what sorts of cell types are affected as the disease progresses.
HAMILTON: Lein says one goal is to identify cells that become abnormal long before symptoms of Alzheimer's start to appear.
LEIN: And if we can find the cells where something goes wrong early in the disease, this would provide a new way to try to treat this disease.
HAMILTON: Lein says the project will look at neurons, which send electrical signals, as well as other brain cells involved in immunity and clearing away debris. Another goal of the project is to look beyond the plaques and tangles in the brain that have been the focus of most treatment efforts.
LEIN: We need new targets. We need new places to try to intervene in the disease at earlier stages in the disease, before things have really gone haywire and the neurons themselves are actually dying.
HAMILTON: One of the principal investigators at the new center is Dr. C. Dirk Keene. He's a neuropathologist with the UW Medicine, which includes the University of Washington Medical School. Keene says even though the project is focusing on basic science, it could lead to a treatment.
C DIRK KEENE: In the greatest scenario, I would love to find that cell that starts the process - where it is, when it happens and how to stop that from happening.
HAMILTON: But Keene says Alzheimer's is likely to prove more complicated than that.
KEENE: There's probably some cells in the brain that are causing problems. And there's probably other cells in the brain that are trying to fix the problems.
HAMILTON: Keene says the project should help identify those cells and any others that are somehow involved in the process that leads to Alzheimer's. And all the data from the project will be available to any scientist who wants to use it. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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