Diseases of Aging

As much as we don’t like to admit it, we are all getting older. Our health and the health of our loved ones become more of a concern as we age. We start to think more about diseases that most often affect the elderly. What if someone we love is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or another neurological disease? Research on neurological diseases is becoming of increasing importance to many Albertans.

Governments, pharmaceutical companies and medical foundations have invested billions of dollars in research on Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological diseases. But cures or even effective treatments of these diseases still don’t exist. Dozens of clinical trials related to potential treatments or drugs for Alzheimer’s have failed. The search for answers has led to more questions. What needs to be changed about the research methods? How will we unlock the mystery of diseases of aging? Could it be that new directions are needed to unlock the key to finding potential treatments? 


The Alberta Prion Research Institute is funding research that looks at human neurological diseases from a different angle. Very recent evidence suggests that there are similarities in the ways in which the proteins misfold in prion diseases and how the process happens in more common human neurodegenerative diseases and dementias. Looking at neurodegenerative diseases from a prion perspective presents new approaches that could lead to some answers.


The Alberta Prion Research Institute and the Alzheimer Society of Alberta and Northwest Territories formed a partnership in 2012 to create the Alberta Alzheimer Research Program. This program has provided six Alberta-based researchers with almost $1.1 million for research related to understanding the fundamental mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease and improving the quality of life for those with the disease. Though the six researchers are all studying Alzheimer’s, they are taking very different approaches.

Ted Allison is developing zebrafish as an inexpensive animal model to study Alzheimer’s. Shigeki Tsutsui is researching methods to measure misfolded proteins in blood that might lead to the development of a blood test to diagnose Alzheimer’s at an earlier stage. Roger Thompson is examining the link between mini strokes and Alzheimer’s to better understand how sporadic Alzheimer’s occurs. Janice Braun is investigating whether altering lysosome activity will be effective in slowing down the progress of Alzheimer’s. Satyabrata Kar is looking at levels of a lysosomal enzyme, cathepsin D, that spike prior to the degeneration of neurons in the brain. Jack Jhamandas is studying the effects of the amount of an enzyme, PFKFB3, on brain cells.


In addition, the Alberta Prion Research Institute is funding Andriy Kovalenko’s research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). His research focuses on antibodies that might recognize and counteract misfolded proteins, in particular superoxide dismutase (SOD1) that can change shape and clump together and cause other normal proteins to change shape. Interrupting this clumping process might slow down the progress of ALS.


So what does this all mean? All of the research being done in Alberta labs is highly complex and technical, but the goal is clear: find diagnostic tools and treatments to help people who have neurodegenerative diseases.


The goal might be clear, but the path is anything but easy. Prions might be the key to cracking the mystery around Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. They might not be the key to cracking the mystery, but we won’t know until we try. Curiosity and exploration are the foundation of science. It is this pursuit of knowledge that will hopefully lead to results. The Alberta Prion Research Institute is committed to funding innovative research on human neurological diseases that explores novel ideas and new directions that might one day have positive impacts for Albertans and people around the world.





Satyabrata Kar (left) with graduate student Jiyun Chung