KANSAS CITY, Kan. – In the future, senior citizens might beat Alzheimer’s disease with a gym membership and doctors might fight Parkinson’s disease with a patient’s own skin cells.
Those are some of the breakthroughs that researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center are pursuing. And, according to the new executive vice chancellor, promising work like that is a key to the long-term success of the medical center
“Neuroscience is one of our strengths. It makes absolute sense to continue to work in that direction,” Dr. Douglas Girod told KHI News Service.
The medical center’s exploration of problems with the brain and the nervous system, which also includes work on rare diseases and multiple sclerosis, “all synergize pretty well,” Girod said. “As always when times are tight, you want to invest in your strengths; so we will continue to do that.”
Girod, 54, is a native of Salem, Ore.
A surgeon, he earned his undergraduate and medical degrees in the University of California system. He came to KU Med in 1994 from the Naval Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., where he was vice chair and research director in the Department of Otolaryngology.
Prior to taking over as executive vice chancellor on Feb. 1, he was KU’s senior associate dean for clinical affairs and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. In his new position, he succeeds Dr. Barbara Atkinson, who retired after nearly a decade as head of the medical center.
Girod oversees a three-campus enterprise of more than 3,300 employees, nearly 3,500 students, and approximately $133 million in external research funding.
When she retired, the university credited Atkinson with overseeing “the largest expansion in research operations” in the history of KU Med.
Girod said his challenge would be maintaining that momentum at a time of tight state budgets and fierce competition for federal research dollars.
The plan, he said, is to “pursue areas of research that we have a high degree of competitiveness in, so that we will be successful. I think that we just have to be a little more strategic and focused in our thoughts around that.”
Here are two centers of excellence Girod highlighted.
Alzheimer’s Disease Center
In August 2011, the National Institute on Aging recognized the work of Drs. Russell Swerdlow and Jeff Burns by naming KU Med the nation’s 29th Alzheimer’s Disease Center. The designation came with a five-year, $6 million grant.
That accomplishment, Girod said, is the neurological equivalent of the KU Cancer Center’s successful bid to earn cancer center designation through the National Cancer Institute.
Swerdlow is director of the Alzheimer’s center.
He said researchers were trying to understand why the energy-producing parts of cells break down, work that could lead to treatments that prevent or mitigate Alzheimer’s.
“We think we can accomplish those goals by addressing the problems of metabolism that arise in the brains of people as they age,” Swerdlow said.
Research into the role exercise can play in limiting or preventing that metabolic degeneration is one of the center’s strengths, he said.
The disease afflicts more than 5 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Swerdlow said the cost of the disease approaches $400 billion a year, when factoring in things such as medical care and lost wages of caregivers.
Creighton Phelps, head of the National Institute on Aging’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center Program, said 10,000 people in the U.S. reach age 65 every day. The main risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age.
“That tells you we have a problem developing here,” he said.
With most of the program’s centers clustered in population centers on the East and West coasts, Phelps said KU Medical Center was important in the network because it serves a largely rural state. Its focus on cell metabolism and exercise was also a plus, he said.
“When their proposal came through,” he said, “it was a little different than some of the others and we like that.”
Kansas Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center
The medical center’s Kansas Intellectual and Development Disabilities Research Center, KIDDRC, is part of a multi-disciplinary hub known as the Institute for Neurological Discoveries, IND. Co-director Peter Smith founded it.
Smith said researchers were working with what are called “induced pluripotent stem cells.”
Generally created from skin cells, Smith said scientists essentially take the cells back in time to early development and then reprogram them with a “cocktail of growth factors” to become neurons.
Parkinson’s patients lose cells in a certain part of the brain, he said. The same goes for people with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“So, if we can take cells from another part of your body and turn them into the neurons we want,” Smith said, “we’ve got an incredibly robust potential therapy.”
KIDDRC is now in its fourth decade of funding through the National Institutes of Health, Smith said.
Girod noted the promise of Smith’s work with rare diseases.
Given that nerves are present throughout the body, Smith said, neuroscience offers insight into rare diseases that occur within several different medical specialties.
The IND, he said, researches nearly two dozen diseases or disorders, ranging from those that affect cognition and behavior to conditions such as fibromyalgia and migraines.
That work has taken KU Med researchers into the emerging field of human genomics, which allows scientists to decode a person’s genetic makeup.
Smith said scientists have identified well over 300 genes implicated in rare diseases that can exact heartbreaking human tolls.
He described a case his team is working on through the National Institutes of Health.
It involves a young man who within seven years went from a healthy, athletic teenager to a wheelchair-bound, 22-year-old with a breathing tube in his neck.
Cases such as that, Smith said, highlight the tragedy of neurologic disorders.
“Nerves control everything, pretty much, I mean hormones are in there, too,” he said. “But the nervous system allows you to be interactive, reactive to your environment, protect yourself, so it’s really what allows us to be human beings.”
He added, “Any disease is horrible to have, but neurological disorders are the most dehumanizing.”