KUMC neurologists lead prestigious Alzheimer’s center

Though Jeffrey Burns and Russell Swerdlow spend some time joking around (they call themselves the Laurel and Hardy of Alzheimer’s disease researchers and once celebrated the submission of a major grant application with a Quizno’s lunch), the Kansas University Medical Center neurologists are serious when they talk about the disease they’re focused on treating and curing.

“We both wanted to do something for people with this disease, and doing it through research is really the way we believe we can help the most people and have the most impact,” said Swerdlow, who is the director of KU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

The disease is receiving national focus, too, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced in May a plan to develop effective prevention and treatment approaches for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias by 2025.

President Obama’s budget proposal for the fiscal year 2013 included $100 million in new funds to combat the disease.

At KU, Swerdlow and Burns lead an Alzheimer’s Disease Center that’s certified by the National Institute on Aging. The process is comparable to the process of applying for National Cancer Institute designation, but not as involved.

Both involve a grant application to the federal government that is judged based on the quality of research being conducted at the institution. The designation from the National Institute on Aging came in August 2011, and KU joined a network of 29 major medical centers across the country that have earned the distinction.

When the pair dropped off their application for designation, Swerdlow remembered it was on a much smaller scale than the cancer designation. No political dignitaries, just him and Burns at a Kinko’s store running off copies of the application. The original celebration plan called for a Subway lunch.

“We should upgrade,” came the reply from Burns. “How about Quizno’s?”

The research is showing promise so far. Burns is looking at how lifestyle changes can affect the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Test subjects participate in a certain level of exercise, and researchers check the progression of the disease. Burns suspects that exercise might have a positive effect.

“We haven’t proven it yet,” Burns said. “No one has.”

Swerdlow’s research focuses on ways to increase brain energy and metabolism, and ties back to exercise in part.

“The ability of the aging brain to consume energy decreases over time and becomes less efficient,” Swerdlow said. “In the Alzheimer’s brain, it’s as if neurons actually give up on consuming energy.”

Swerdlow said the disease affects one of every eight people over the age of 65, and beyond the age of 85, half of the population has it.

“We have so far to go to understand it and so far to go to treat it,” Burns said. “Instead of seeing that as a negative that keeps people away from the field, I see it as a positive.”

— Higher education reporter Andy Hyland can be reached at 832-6388. Follow him at Twitter.com/LJW_KU.