Grant backs NYU Winthrop’s out-of-the-skull thinking

Fits right in: An unexpected grant will piece together an NYU Winthrop Hospital Alzheimer's disease research effort.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A “surprise grant” from the Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center will further some promising Alzheimer’s-related research underway at NYU Winthrop Hospital.

The Mineola hospital’s Research Institute announced Wednesday that researcher Allison Reiss, head of the institute’s Inflammation Section, has received a $10,000 grant from ADRC – a Bay Shore-based advocacy group – to support her work with human stem cells.

Reiss’ team – including NYU Winthrop researchers Aaron Pinkhasov, Irving Gomolin, Joshua De Leon and Lora Kasselman – reengineers human stem cells to behave like brain neurons. The idea, dumbed way down, is to overcome the most significant hurdles stymying scientists working on Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders: the complexity (and relative inaccessibility) of the brain itself.

By training stem cells to replicate brain neurons, “NYU Winthrop believes it will achieve the closest approximation to brain behavior possible,” according to the hospital – an invaluable research advancement.

In a sort of bonus side-breakthrough, the NYU Winthrop team has introduced a repurposed drug – originally used to treat leukemia – into its neuron-research effort, and the re-tasked compound “unexpectedly was shown to cause memory improvements in patients with Alzheimer’s,” the hospital said in a statement.

Reiss’ research focuses on proteins that clump together to form the plaque, or beta-amyloid, found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and on the effects glucose and insulin levels – of special interest to diabetes patients, among others – have on amyloid activity.

Most importantly, the research is an entirely extra-skull effort – thanks to the reworked stem cells standing in for actual brain neurons, Reiss et al are doing it all in cell culture dishes.

Team effort: Allison Reiss and friends.

By collecting blood samples from Alzheimer’s disease patients and adding “key factors derived from their blood” to the reengineered neurons, Reiss and her team are essentially recreating the conditions of Alzheimer’s-infected brains – “a unique system with completely human components that is personalized and achieved non-invasively,” the lead researcher noted.

Likening the search for effective Alzheimer’s treatments to “a drought in the desert,” Reiss said the research was critical in the face of a disease that’s the sixth-leading cause of death in U.S. adults and a $200 billion annual scourge on the national health system.

And especially so, she added, with that inability to replicate the human brain’s complexity leading to more than 120 failed clinical trials of potential Alzheimer’s treatments over the last two decades, and only a handful of new dementia medicines approved since the turn of the century.

“We now have a promising new approach that may aid our research efforts toward advancements in treatments to slow and stop this debilitating disease,” Reiss said.

The work caught the eye of the Bay Shore-based Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center, which maintains satellite offices in Valley Stream, Garden City, Huntington Station, Lake Success and Valley Stream and supports regional research into potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Hopefully, the unsolicited grant “will aid the NYU Winthrop team’s endeavors to fid keys to stop the disease’s progression,” ADRC Chief Executive Officer Mary Ann Malack-Ragona said in a statement.

“Allison Reiss has passionately and tirelessly investigated new avenues for advancements in the treatment of Alzheimer’s,” Malack-Ragona noted. “Her research is extremely important.”

With the new grant, Reiss and her team will more closely examine the interactivities between brain neurons and glucose – leveraging the NYU Winthrop Hospital Research Institute’s long history with diabetes research – and further investigate the effects of the promising leukemia drug.

Lora Kasselman, an NYU Winthrop neurobiologist and member of Reiss’ research team, said the stem cell-based research held plenty of promise for the estimated 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“By recreating neural interaction that actually occurs in the brain … the discoveries and improvements we hope to make with Alzheimer’s treatment are more likely to be replicated in actual patients suffering from the disease,” Kasselman noted.