The KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center
In 2003, Jeff Burns came to the University of Kansas to expand its Alzheimer’s disease research infrastructure. Alzheimer’s — a degenerative neurological disease first detailed by a German psychiatrist in 1906 — affects approximately 5.2 million Americans. Each year, nearly 3,000 people die from Alzheimer’s disease in Missouri and Kansas.
When he arrived at the KU Medical Center, Burns’ main objective was to earn an official designation from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), similar to the National Cancer Institute designation earned by the KU Cancer Center in 2012.
“It was always goal number one,” Burns says. “I thought it’d take 15 years. But when I came here, it was to do this.”
The award is rare. The NIA designates and funds just 29 Alzheimer’s centers across the nation. Their support means more research of a higher quality. It also means new treatments and better preventative care. In essence, when it receives an NIA designation, a program becomes turbocharged.
Part of what earns clinical research centers their NIA distinctions — in addition to institutional support, promising research, and state-of-the-art facilities — is the doctors themselves. And when it came to physicians, Burns called his first mentor, an attending physician from his residency at the University of Virginia, Russell Swerdlow, and recruited him in 2007.
“I was his first mentor,” Swerdlow says, laughing, “but he was my first mentee.”
Together, Burns and Swerdlow established the mandatory organization necessary to earn an NIA designation. The KU Alzheimer’s Center is a wide-ranging bicampus initiative, and comprises key facilities and personnel at the Medical Center and at the Lawrence campus. Although the environment was right, says Burns, things fell into place only after a tremendous amount of work by many people.
“We have two of what we call ‘boutique’ cores,” Swerdlow says. “Our Neuroimaging Core, which has special expertise in assessing brain energy metabolism, and the Mitochondrial Genomics and Metabolism Core, which provides state-of-the-art abilities to assess energy in mitochondria.”
Once they had the cores in place, Burns and Swerdlow began the application process. The NIA designation is limited, so only a select number of institutions can carry the label at a time, making the process extremely competitive.
In 2009, their first application was rejected. They resubmitted in 2010.
“We got a good score,” Burns says. “But we hadn’t heard anything from them. A few months had gone by without any feedback. Our assumption was this wasn’t going to work out.”
But in July 2011 — eight months after they shipped off the paperwork — they finally heard something. Burns was picking up pizza for a birthday party when Swerdlow called him, he says, and had to turn his car around because he missed his destination while he processed the news: The NIA had awarded its designation to the KU Alzheimer’s Center.
“We were so proud, so happy,” Burns says.
“This is very important to us,” Swerdlow agrees.
“At the same time, we knew this was a long-term deal,” Burns says. “This is a huge responsibility.”
Neither doctor takes anything for granted. They’re continuing to expand the center’s resources and to attract new faculty, students, and researchers. Recently, the KU center received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health — the NIA’s parent organization — to study the role exercise plays in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
It only gets them closer to their most important goal: eliminating Alzheimer’s disease altogether.