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The Charleston Conference on Alzheimer's disease

Exploring an innovative funding mechanism in the wake of NIH cutbacks

Staff Reports | MUSC News Center | June 10, 2013

ccadJoseph A. Helpern, Ph.D., addresses a group at the Charleston Conference on Alzheimer's disease.

If you take a philanthropist with a heart to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and a physicist with a heart for mentoring young researchers, the likeliest to fast-track such discoveries, the resulting mix is an innovative program called the Charleston Conference on Alzheimer’s disease.

The first one held Feb. 28 - March 2, the very weekend that sequestration went into effect, was a huge success, said Joseph A. Helpern, Ph.D., who organized and chaired the event. The conference tested a new model of funding high-risk, high-reward research to spur basic science research into Alzheimer’s disease as a way to develop collaborative relationships with fellow innovative thinkers to push the frontier in this area.

Helpern, a SmartState Endowed Chair in Brain Imaging and director of the Center for Biomedical Imaging at MUSC, paired his talents with philanthropist Carole Pittelman who, frustrated by the slow pace of clinical advances for Alzheimer’s disease, sought to jump-start research by awarding four early career investigators $50,000 each for a novel, one-year project that would likely be considered too high-risk for traditional funding mechanisms.


From across the US, top researchers were asked to submit a proposal and write an essay on one question: “What changes would you make to the standard paradigm of how research is traditionally conducted and funded?” The 15 respondents with the most insightful answers and most promising research proposals were invited to Charleston to present their grant proposal to their peers and the Charleston Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease Scientific Board.

Helpern said the idea worked better than they had even hoped, with very positive feedback and positive momentum for next year’s event. The second annual conference will be held in Charleston from March 14-16, 2014.  

“We want to take young, bright rising star kind of investigators and get them some seed money to get them moving faster on the track of solving this problem,” Helpern said.  “We’re in a financial crisis right now with research in the United States, and the rippling effects of what Washington is doing right now is not being recognized by as many people as it should be. Part of the ripples involve people leaving the field because they’re not being funded.”

That’s something Helpern, who has a passion for mentoring promising researchers, hates to see.

Even before sequestration, which could trim as much as another $1.6 billion from the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this year, funding had been historically tight. Whereas NIH once awarded funding to the top 25 percent of grant applications, that number has now dropped to less than 10 percent at many institutes and as low as 5 percent at others. The scarcity of grant funding, worsened by the sequestration, jeopardizes the ability of many young investigators to stay in science as both their research and their salaries are contingent on such grants.

In the area of Alzheimer’s disease, where under $500 million has been allocated for research, innovative ideas are needed to bridge the gap, he said. “This is a problem estimated by the Alzheimer’s Association with annual costs of $400 billion a year in 2012. The reason it’s so high is that Alzheimer’s patients need more care. Their families and friends have to chip in and take care of them. It’s a costly disease. It’s going to become a bigger problem as we age as a population.”

 The conference allowed experienced and junior investigators to share ideas. 

One idea to help: a contest and conference that brings the experience of senior leaders in the field and the enthusiasm of junior researchers together. To receive an invitation to the conference, a list of promising early career investigators was considered by the conference’s scientific board, composed of Helpern (chair), George Bartzokis, M.D. (David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA), Peter Davies, Ph.D. (director, Litwin-Zucker Center for Research on AD at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research), Karen Duff, Ph.D. (Columbia University),  Allison Goate, D.Phil. (Washington University School of Medicine), Benjamin Wolozin, Ph.D. (Boston University School of Medicine) and Charlie Dorego (Glenwood Management).

Helpern said the conference paired five senior researchers from around the nation with these rising young investigators in a way that they could mix and mingle with colleagues from a wide range of fields, which is unusual for how conferences generally may be held with researchers sticking to one specialty area. “You have imaging scientists having to have social conversations with people in genomics. That may sound trivial, but it’s huge in many ways. For one, you get to know your colleagues that are working in the field from a different angle. One of the beauties of the conference was that several people who did not know each other’s research before walked away arm in arm knowing each other now as collaborators, and they’re going away to try to solve this terrible problem of Alzheimer’s disease. How do you put a price on that?”

The four early career investigators who each received a $50,000 award were John Kauwe, Ph.D. (BYU), who will seek to identify protective genetic variants in members of at-risk families who do not develop Alzheimer’s disease; Jungsu Kim, Ph.D. (Washington University/Mayo), who will explore the role of the microRNA in aging-associated transcriptional dysfunction and Alzheimer’s disease; Mark Meadowcroft, Ph.D. (Penn State), who will work to validate neuroimaging studies with histological changes in Alzheimer’s disease; and Salvatore Oddo, Ph.D. (Utah), who will seek to improve cognitive functioning in Alzheimer’s disease by improving synaptic function via targeted neuronal stimulation.

Dr. Joseph A. Helpern 

Helpern said he applauds the vision of philanthropist Pittelman, who is advancing such research in an innovative way. MUSC gets the exposure and gets the benefit of the conference being held here.  “It’s a very creative way for philanthropy to fund research, and if it’s going to be hosted somewhere, why not here? My overall reaction to the conference is overwhelmingly positive. It helps put us on the map.”

Given the ongoing national funding crisis, the conference also helps to do something else, Helpern said. He points out a large window in his office to pedestrians walking by. It’s something he’ll do at times to colleagues and to those he mentors reminding them that no doubt there’s someone out there walking by who is affected by Alzheimer’s disease or has a family member who is.

“I know that sounds so heart tugging and melodramatic, but it’s so true. We’re not here just to have a job. We’re here to solve a problem. Sometimes we have to refocus ourselves.”




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