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Rochester scientist wins major Alzheimer's research award

February 23, 2007

A Rochester researcher who is pioneering a whole new approach to Alzheimer's disease has been awarded a major national research award.

Berislav Zlokovic, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Neurosurgery and Neurology, will receive the MetLife Foundation Award for Medical Research in Alzheimer's Disease today in Washington, D.C. The award will be made to Zlokovic and to David M. Holtzman, M.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis at a special scientific briefing and luncheon.

Zlokovic is being recognized for a string of scientific accomplishments that have put physicians and scientists back in touch with the vascular roots of the disease and opened up new avenues to counter the devastating effects of Alzheimer's. Though German physician Alois Alzheimer noted changes in the small arteries and capillaries in the brain when he first recognized the disease 100 years ago, that observation has been largely pushed to the background as doctors have focused on the disease's toxic effects on brain cells. Zlokovic is looking not only at the damage to brain cells but also at the underlying difficulties in the vascular system, and at the crucial role of the blood-brain barrier in the disease process.

"Dr. Zlokovic's research is a great example of how insights gained in the laboratory can bring new hope around the globe for patients with Alzheimer's disease and their families," said David Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. "This recognition by the MetLife Foundation reflects the significance of Dr. Zlokovic's research in charting a path toward better treatment, or even prevention, of this devastating disease."

Zlokovic has shown that the brain's vascular system and the activity at the body's blood-brain barrier play a key role in ridding the brain of the toxic amyloid beta that speckles the brains of Alzheimer's patients. His team has identified much of the molecular machinery that allows amyloid beta to sidestep the body's safeguards and enter the brain, and he has discovered the molecules that falter when the toxic protein accumulates in the brain. He has also demonstrated several strategies for preventing or lowering amyloid beta accumulation in the brain.

In research at the university's Frank P. Smith Laboratory for Neuroscience and Neurosurgery Research, which Zlokovic directs, he is working on ways to increase the action of molecules that haul amyloid beta away, and lessen the activity of molecules that escort the toxic protein into the brain. Partly as a result of Zlokovic's work, new drugs that target these molecules are being tested in people in a completely new effort to prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer's. Such drugs would complement other current medications that doctors use to treat patients with the disease.

Recently, Zlokovic's team identified a link between decreased activity of a vascular gene and dysfunction in the blood vessels of Alzheimer's patients. When scientists restored the effects of the MEOX-2 gene at the blood-brain barrier, they noticed growth of new blood vessels, reduction in the death of cells, and improved clearance of amyloid beta out of the brain.

Zlokovic is also known internationally for his work on stroke. A decade of his research stands behind a new approach to treat acute stroke that is now being tested in Rochester and in three other cities around the nation. The experimental treatment is a form of a medication, Activated Protein C, that doctors now use to treat sepsis. In a series of scientific achievements, Zlokovic has shown that the compound offers promise for stroke patients as well. Now he and his colleagues are testing the treatment in patients.

Zlokovic is also the founder of Socratech, a Rochester biotech company searching for new treatments for Alzheimer's and stroke.

Since 1986, the MetLife awards have been made to scientists who have demonstrated significant contributions to the understanding of Alzheimer's disease. The MetLife Foundation has awarded more than $10 million in grants through its Awards for Medical Research in Alzheimer's Disease program, and has also provided support to the Alzheimer's Association for initiatives including caregiving videos, resources for the Hispanic community and the Safe Return identification program.

Zlokovic and Holtzman will each receive a $50,000 personal award, in addition to a $200,000 research award to each of their institutions, to further their research.

"Alzheimer's is an issue of national importance. The disease is not only financially devastating to many families, but it also robs them of the person they once knew," said C. Robert Henrikson, chairman, president and chief executive officer of MetLife, Inc. "The impact of Alzheimer's on families, society, and the economy is why MetLife has been committed for over 20 years to the search for a cure."

University of Rochester Medical Center

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