Budget cuts called threat to research

Posted Friday, Apr. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Nobel Prize winner Stanley Prusiner is at the forefront of research in trying to find a way to slow or stop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

But Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for discovering prions -- infectious proteins that cause neurodegenerative disorders -- said Friday that cuts in federal spending cuts risk impeding vital research at the same time the number of people suffering from ailments is expected to soar.

Speaking at the University of North Texas Health Science Center's Research Appreciation Day, Prusiner said cuts in funding for the National Institutes of Health are shortsighted since the costs to care who suffer from neurodegenerative diseases are far higher. Prusiner said part of the problem is denial.

"Alzheimer's disease is so awful nobody wants to face this," Prusiner said. "Everybody believes their brain is very good. Everybody who is smart, they say you know I'm going to not get this disease. And then there's a whole bunch of people who say I might get this disease, it is inevitable and it's a consequence of aging, and we're never going to be able to find a cure."

But to battle those perceptions, Prusiner said, some success is needed to convince people that drugs can be found to slow the progression of these diseases. Some testing in mice doubled the incubation time from for Alzheimer's from 100 to 200 days, the equivalent of nine years in humans.

"That would be the first demonstration that we could do this," Prusiner said. "That's another part of the problem is that people don't believe we can do this."

Currently, Prusiner said, little can be done to stop these diseases. Though some medications can temporarily slow the symptoms, they do nothing to stop the progression of the disease.

"We have zero drugs in the pipeline for Alzheimer's," he said. "With cancer, we have over 600 and more every day. Heart disease, we have hundreds. ... There is not a single drug that stops or slows one neurodegenerative disease."

Prusiner's research at the University of California, San Francisco, where he is head of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, has also linked prions to post-traumatic stress disorders in combat veterans as well as brain damage in athletes who suffer multiple concussions, researchers at the university report.

Scientists like Prusiner have had to increasingly rely on private donors to fund research. One of Prusiner's is the Fort Worth-based Rainwater Charitable Foundation. Fort Worth billionaire Richard Rainwater, who founded the foundation, was diagnosed in 2009 with progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurodegenerative disease that has no known cure.

According to the foundation's website, Rainwater "assembled a team of the leading physicians and researchers from around the world and charged them with working together innovatively to find a cure for PSP. This group of over thirty principal investigators, dubbed the Tau Consortium, researches the causes, progression and potential treatments of this disease."

Support from private foundations has helped keep Prusiner optimistic about a cure in spite of the cuts in federal research dollars.

"I'm 100 percent hopeful," Prusiner said. "One of the great things about science is I go to bed and wake up in the morning and you or somebody else on the planet will have discovered something and that changes everything. That's science."

While Prusiner said it is difficult to put a timeline on a drug for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, he believes it isn't that far off.

"I think it's five years -- five to seven years," he said. "I'm hopeful that it will be much faster."

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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