The Amazon.com of Alzheimer’s Research
IU School of Medicine is home to the NIH-funded repository that collects, stores and distributes samples from patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia to be used in Alzheimer’s research across the country.
At first blush, Tatiana Foroud, PhD, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Jeff Bezos. Foroud is the chair of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine. Bezos, as everyone knows, is the billionaire founder of Amazon.
But it turns out, both are masters of logistics and adept at fulfilling customers’ orders and delivering them anywhere in the world.
In Foroud’s case, the precious cargo she is charged with handling is blood, DNA and other samples donated by people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. And the customers who await her deliveries are researchers who mine the samples for clues about what causes the disorders and how we might slow or prevent them.
Foroud runs the National Centralized Repository for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, a biobank funded by the National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The NIA recently awarded Foroud a new $12 million grant to substantially expand the repository to keep up with growing demand from researchers.
A national resource for Alzheimer’s research
To date, the bank has collected more than a half million specimens donated by more than 60,000 people around the country. In addition to basics like blood and DNA, researchers can request cerebral spinal fluid, brain tissue, cell lines and other biological samples. There is no other resource like it in the country.
“These specimens are incredibly important for research,” said Foroud, the Joe C. Christian Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics. “A lot of what researchers are using them for is to develop tests so you can identify people with dementia before symptoms occur. With any new trial or new medication, it’s much harder to fix something that’s broken than to try to stop it from breaking. These samples allow us to test ideas and look for answers.”
The samples come from institutions around the country that collect them as part of research studies. But rather than keep them at each individual site, they ship them to Foroud and her team, who are meticulous in their approach to cataloguing and storing the materials for later use. They are held in banks of carefully monitored freezers and retrieved when researchers submit a request.
If a scientist needs something, chances are good that Foroud has it.
At any given moment, she and her team can pull up specimens from younger patients with early onset Alzheimer’s; dementia linked to Down syndrome; patients of different racial backgrounds; family members at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease; and other subsets of interest to the research community.
Some 500 scientific papers have been published that relied on samples and data from the repository since it was founded in 1990.
A new focus on pluripotent stem cells
As part of a major expansion, the repository will now also collect and distribute induced pluripotent stem cell lines. Induced pluripotent stem cells are created by taking cells from adults – frequently skin cells or blood cells – and activating genes that return the cells to a stem cell state. At that point, the cells are “pluripotent,” meaning they can be coaxed by scientists to differentiate into many types of cells, such as various neurons found in the brain.
“What’s beautiful about pluripotent stem cells is you can turn them into many different kinds of cells,” Foroud said. “You can take a skin cell and make that into a neuron. You can do further differentiation to turn that into a particular type of neuron. Because we are talking about brain cells, we can’t normally do research when a patient is still alive. These cells create all kinds of opportunities for research.”
For Foroud, it is rewarding to know that IU School of Medicine can help facilitate research throughout the country that may lead to improved therapies or prevention techniques for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
“Alzheimer’s disease is too big of a problem for any one researcher or institution to solve,” she said. “We need to pool our resources and work together. This bank makes it possible for researchers to access the samples they need—regardless of where they originate from–and it ensures we are putting these precious specimens to the best possible use. It is a huge honor that IU School of Medicine is entrusted to manage this repository for the entire country.”
Learn how the generosity of donors is fueling Alzheimer’s disease research at IU School of Medicine.