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OHSU wins NIH grant to look for Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers

Research will be part of large national consortium studying new ideas on human cell communication

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have been awarded a National Institutes of Health grant worth up to $1.9 million to explore ways to find "biomarkers" within human cerebral spinal fluid that might predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

The OHSU research will be part of a new group of NIH-funded research projects across the country — announced today — that will be exploring a novel area of research. The research will look at how certain newly identified molecules — termed extracellular RNA, or exRNA — move genetic material from one cell to another and serve as a new way of communicating between cells. The exRNA are already thought to play a part in cell regulation and biological processes, and also to underlie a number of diseases and disorders.

The OHSU research will look at the levels of exRNA in cerebral spinal fluid to determine whether they could give a biological hint to the early development of Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. There is no treatment or cure for the disease, and no known biomarker that might suggest early development of the disease — before dementia symptoms are obvious.

"If scientists could find a signal indicating early development of Alzheimer’s disease, it would be invaluable in guiding clinicians toward early intervention to prevent or slow the disease, and potentially provide clues regarding the underlying cellular changes that initiate the disease," said Julie Saugstad, Ph.D., an OHSU associate professor of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine and the lead principal investigator on the OHSU study.

"The most exciting aspect of this project is that it could identify novel molecular pathways that could transform our understanding of Alzheimer's disease and maybe even lead to completely new treatment strategies,” said Joseph Quinn, M.D., an OHSU professor of neurology and co-principal investigator on the project.

The research will analyze the samples of cerebral spinal fluid for evidence of a type of small RNA contained within exRNA called microRNA. It will determine whether there is a difference in the microRNA in the samples from the Alzheimer's patients compared with the healthy control patients.

The research will be carried out by a team of scientists representing multiple disciplines, departments and institutions. Beyond Saugstad and Quinn, other members of the team are: Jodi Lapidus, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics, and Theresa Lusardi, Ph.D., research associate, at Legacy Research Institute; Christina Harrington, Ph.D., director of the Integrated Genomics Laboratory and Gene Profiling Shared Resource; and Jay Phillips, B.S., research assistant in OHSU’s Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine.

The NIH grant number for the OHSU project is 1UH2TR000903-01.

The NIH announcement today detailed the $17 million it will spend this year on 24 research projects designed to improve scientists’ understanding of exRNA. Through these awards, scientists will explore basic exRNA biology and develop tools and technologies that apply new knowledge about exRNA to the research, diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

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