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A night at Raheen for Alzheimer’s Disease

Posted: 02nd September 2016

Ninety-six people attended dinner at Raheen on August the 4th, hosted by Jeanne Pratt. More than $103,000 was raised on the night to support Professor Michael Parker’s Alzheimer’s research. We are most grateful to Jeanne Pratt for hosting the evening and to Sue Alberti AC for facilitating the event. Below is an excerpt from Michael’s speech.

“In 1906, Dr Alois Alzheimer gave a lecture in which he described for the first time a form of dementia that subsequently became known as Alzheimer’s disease. In the 110 years that have passed since that lecture, medicine has advanced in great strides, but there is still no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s.

One in ten Australians over 65 live with dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common form. The World Health Organization predicts that the number of people with Alzheimer’s will almost double over the next 20 years. If you’re hoping to live to 85 or older, your chance of getting Alzheimer’s will be almost one in two.

In my lab, we use the knowledge of a protein’s 3D shape to help us to design drugs. We determine the 3D shapes of proteins using a method called X-ray crystallography. We then use sophisticated computer algorithms to design drugs to fit to the shape of the protein and change its action.

My team has been working for over 15 years to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s. There have been many recent advances in understanding the disease. We know that it is linked to accumulation of toxic plaques and tangles in the brain, which are made up of proteins called amyloid-beta and tau. These protein clusters are believed to cause the loss of brain cells that results in cognitive decline.

One of the most exciting projects in our lab at SVI focuses on finding a way to clear these protein clusters. We know that the brain has natural ways of removing them, and there is a protein in the brain, called CD33, a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, which impedes this process.

Imagine the brain is a city, and like any city, it needs garbage collectors to keep the streets free of garbage. Similarly, the brain has cells that are charged with removing proteins clusters that would otherwise build up. If we could enhance this process in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s, we may be able to help prevent the disease from occurring. However, there is some evidence that the protein CD33 acts like a handbrake and stops the garbage – the toxic protein clusters – from being cleared.

My team has visualised the 3D structure of CD33 at its atomic level, and we are designing drugs to fit into its nooks and crannies in order to stop it from working. This will essentially improve the efficiency of garbage disposal in the brain, and hopefully impact on the outcome of the disease.

However, despite the huge burden of dementia, throughout the developed world far less money is spent on researching a cure for Alzheimer’s than researching cancer treatment – in Australia, even with a recent injection of funds, about 5 times more is spent on cancer research. Without a medical breakthrough, the cost of dementia is set to outstrip that of any other health condition.

And this is why philanthropy is so important. It helps us to respond nimbly to new knowledge, keeping us at the cutting edge of research; it helps fund equipment that is necessary for us to do our experiments; and it helps us to recruit the most talented researchers.

Everyone with a brain is at risk of Alzheimer’s, and it is only together that we will be able to find new treatments for this disease.”