UNT Health Science Center receives $149 million for large-scale Alzheimer’s research

The federal government has chosen a university in Fort Worth to conduct one of the largest studies of Alzheimer’s disease to date.

Researchers at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth will receive nearly $149 million in grant funding over five years from the National Institute on Aging to study the biology of Alzheimer’s in the three largest racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. — African Americans , Mexican American and non-Spanish white. This is the largest grant received by the University of North Texas system to date.

Led by Sid O’Bryant, executive director of the Translational Research Institute at UNTHSC, the large-scale study will collect data on 4,500 participants in the Fort Worth area to better understand differences in neurodegenerative disease among different populations.

“What we have now, in my opinion, is kind of a myopic view of what Alzheimer’s looks like among non-Hispanic whites, and our data shows that it doesn’t look the same across the board,” O’Bryant said. “So we’re going to take the existing framework and expand it exponentially. That in itself will really shake the very foundations of the field.”

About 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older will be living with Alzheimer’s in 2022, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease does not affect all racial and ethnic groups equally—older black Americans are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or another dementia as white Americans, and Hispanic Americans are expected to have the largest increase in the disease by 2060.

UNTHSC will collaborate with 17 US institutions as part of the study, including laboratories at the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. All patients participating in the study will be located in Fort Worth and participants will interact only with UNTHSC staff.

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The study was designed in such a way that participants felt comfortable and connected with researchers who live and work in their own communities. Fort Worth proved to be the ideal location for the center of the study because the city’s racial and ethnic demographics represent what the U.S. will look like in the next few decades, O’Bryant said.

“The opportunity to change the trajectory of Alzheimer’s disease and lead this first-of-its-kind health disparities work is an honor and privilege for all of North Texas and beyond,” said UNTHSC President Sylvia Trent-Adams.

The researchers will pay particular attention to the differences in health experienced by the participants to assess how social and economic pressures affect the development of Alzheimer’s.

“We can never understand the brain if we don’t understand the environment we come from,” O’Bryant said.

Monday’s announcement of the study included a number of Texas politicians, each with their own personal connections to Alzheimer’s. Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks said he was inspired by his mother’s battle with the disease to sign up for the study.

“The things we do, we honor the dead, but we do them for the living, for the current generation and for those generations to come so they can live a better life,” Brooks said.

As part of the study, participants will undergo brain imaging at the Translational Research Institute’s Imaging Center, which consists of nearly 20,000 square feet of clinical and office space dedicated to research. The researchers will also analyze the participants’ blood tests and genetic tests.

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Already 3,000 participants over the age of 50 have been included in the study. Through the new grant, the study will add 500 participants between the ages of 30 and 49 from every racial and ethnic group.

With the new grant, the UNTHSC Health & Aging Brain Study on health disparities is on track to receive up to $201 million in federal funding.

North Texas has established itself as a premier location for Alzheimer’s research, both in academia and in the private sector. Dallas biotech company Vaxxinity announced in May that its Alzheimer’s vaccine candidate had received fast-track designation from the Food and Drug Administration, which will speed up the review process.

O’Bryant said pharmaceutical companies have already begun contacting the university about partnering to use the data gathered from the large-scale study. The goal, he said, is to gather information that can be used by researchers around the world to change the way Alzheimer’s is diagnosed and treated.

“This project will unequivocally change the world. There is no doubt. And there’s no real other option,” O’Bryant said.

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