Fort Worth researchers receive $149M for large study of Alzheimer’s in racial, ethnic groups

Amanda McCoy/amccoy@star-telegram.com

The National Institutes of Health is giving $149 million to researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center to pay for researchers to study the biology of Alzheimer’s disease in multiple racial and ethnic groups.

The money will fund the first large-scale study of the biology of Alzheimer’s disease in the three largest racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the researchers. The trial will recruit and enroll Black Americans, Mexican Americans, and non-Hispanic white Americans. The study’s focus on health disparities across racial and ethnic groups addresses one of the biggest flaws in clinical research in the U.S. today: Most research involves white people.

“We can study how this disease begins in the earliest signs and symptoms across racial and ethnic groups, so that in time, we will be able to have true precision medicine that’s relevant to everybody,” said Sid O’Bryant, the lead researcher and executive director of the Institute for Translational Research, the lab that will conduct the research

The research grant is the largest ever awarded to the University of North Texas System.

O’Bryant’s research will focus on building a more comprehensive biological system for understanding the disease, and what biological signals the body may offer to indicate a person could develop Alzheimer’s disease.

This understanding could offer two things: First, a pathway to so-called “precision medicine,” meaning that doctors might eventually be able to prescribe drugs and treatments based on an Alzheimer’s patient’s age, risk factors, and the state of their disease. And second, the ability to identify early markers of Alzheimer’s disease, so patients can one day focus on preventing Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place, instead of simply trying to slow the disease’s progress through the body.

“We’re still pretty far behind other diseases like cancer,” O’Bryant said. “In the cancer space, precision medicine is the approach.

“It is not about this person has breast cancer, how do we treat it? It is what type of cancer cell? What are the mutations? What and what type of drugs should we use to treat this patient.”

Alzheimer’s patients, however, currently have only a few treatment options, and there is no cure for the disease.

Public officials and leaders of the UNT system joined O’Bryant at a press conference Monday to announce the grant.

Tarrant County commissioner Roy Brooks said he enrolled in O’Bryant’s research trial about two years ago.

Brooks and his siblings cared for Brooks’ mother as she battled Alzheimer’s disease.

“A more beautiful, elegant, community-involved woman you’d never meet,” Brooks said. “As a result of our experience with Alzheimer’s, I became aware of the disparate impact that Alzheimer’s disease has on communities of color.”

As a trial participant, Brooks underwent a battery of physical and neurological tests, including blood tests, X-rays and CAT scans. Brooks will regularly participate in these tests throughout the rest of his life as the research continues.

Although Black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to develop Alzheimer’s disease, they have largely not been included in clinical research. An analysis by Bloomberg News that looked at more than 50,000 participants in pharmaceutical and government sponsored-trials to understand Alzheimer’s found that just 2% of patients reported in the last 10 years were Black.

Some of this disparity stems from how participants are typically recruited for trials. Often, O’Bryant said, trial participants will be recruited from Alzheimer’s specialty clinics, where patients with better health insurance and more resources can afford to get treatment for the disease.

“Normally this type of research happens in Ivory Tower settings and within dementia specialty clinics,” O’Bryant said. “Most people who are in underserved communities never see a specialist.”

In all, the research will involve 4,500 participants recruited from North Texas, O’Bryant said. About 3,000 people are already enrolled in the trial, according to a news release from UNT HSC. The expanded research funded by the grant will allow researchers to recruit participants as young as 30, allowing the research team to potentially study people for decades of their lives.