Important Dementia Studies Continuing at UK Despite Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic

LEXINGTON, Ky.  (July 30, 2020) —The COVID-19 pandemic brought many things to a screeching halt and continues to impact our daily lives. However, important research at the University of Kentucky’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging (SBCoA) is continuing under extreme caution and deep dedication.

“It can’t wait,” said Dr. Greg Jicha, a neurologist at SBCoA.  

A monumental study in the field of dementia research is set to get underway in the coming weeks at UK. Researchers will be looking at a medication that recently received experimental approval from The United States Food and Drug Administration and its impact on the newly characterized form of dementia known as LATE. The disease was named and popularized about one year ago by an international working group led by Dr. Peter Nelson, the senior neuropathologist at SBCoA.

LATE is a disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Those symptoms are referred to as “dementia,” but are caused by different underlying processes in the brain. LATE is important because it affects millions of people – approximately 40% of people over the age of 85. 

So how was it recognized?  Researchers around the world noticed that a large number of people who died in advanced age had symptoms of dementia without the telltale features of Alzheimer’s disease (“plaques and tangles”) in their brains at autopsy.  Emerging research indicated that the protein TDP-43 contributed to that phenomenon. 

"Dozens of different viruses and bacteria can cause pneumonia," Nelson said. "So why would we think there is just one cause of dementia?"

Jicha says this is an example of a true partnership between Nelson’s science and direct care in the development of medicines.

“While everyone else around the globe is still trying to understand what this diagnosis is, UK is already moving forward to treat this disease," he said. "That is something that is not happening anywhere else in the world.”

Both Jicha and Nelson reiterate that they are not trying to downplay COVID-19. However, through their work, they are constantly reminded the risk of death from dementia is 100%.

“The thing that is really going to take our society down is dementia,” said Nelson. “People are very aggressive about treating cancer. There has been a less interventional approach to dementia, and I think that needs to change.”

So how do they plan to safely conduct a trial in the midst of COVID-19 when it involves participants who are at the highest risk to catch the disease and have the most serious consequences?

“That is a real barrier and that’s really pushed us to create the safest place as possible for protection against COVID-19 … because our research participants deserve that,” said Jicha.

SBCoA has worked with every different component of safety regarding COVID-19. Additionally, they are testing all research participants before they can enter the clinic as well as all staff members that participants could potentially come in contact with. “We aren’t only testing the staff in our clinic but also UK nurses, the people that run the MRIs … literally anybody that our people come in contact with so that we can guarantee that all have been COVID tested and are negative,” said Jicha.

Due to the success in reopening the clinic and keeping research going, Jicha has actually presented both nationally and internationally on the procedures at SBCoA. He says because of their efforts, they can be confident that the chances of someone catching COVID-19 in the clinic are extremely low. They are hopeful that the measures put in place, along with the extreme care and caution being exemplified by everyone at SBCoA, will help ease any worries of participants who are helping with this newest research.,

The upcoming study will look at participants with mild memory problems who are ages 75 and older. Jicha says they will be screened for Alzheimer’s disease, and if they do not have the Alzheimer’s plaques on their brain, then it is highly likely that they have LATE. The participants will be treated with the experimental drug for a two-year period. Nelson says they are hoping to get more participants who are in advanced aging but are not experiencing extreme cognitive issues,

“Those are the people we can prevent from declining,” he said.

Jicha says thanks to his colleague’s science, the medication they are studying is designed not to help manage the dementia symptoms but instead actually modify the gene that causes the disease to progress. “This could potentially cure the disease versus just being a band-aid for the symptoms,” he said. The study is being funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Nelson says this work of transitioning his science directly into a potential treatment, all in one location, solidifies his decision years ago to come to UK.

“We know we have the best horses … we love that! We know we have the best basketball team … we love that! We know we have the best bourbon … we love that!" Nelson said. "But what a lot of people don’t know is that we have this gem. The number one place for involving research participants in trials for dementia is the University of Kentucky.”

It is thanks to being part of that world-class center that Jicha and Nelson are able to move this cutting-edge research forward.

“The discovery doesn’t stop here. As with all good science, every question that is answered takes us forward,” said Jicha.

If you are interested in learning more about this study, contact the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at 859-323-5550.