Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute CEO champions funding for dementia research

David Morgan plays a leading role in an ambitious national research movement to help stop Alzheimer’s disease by 2025

In a year’s time Alzheimer’s disease affects more Americans than cancer and heart disease, the country’s top two causes of death. And, according to a report by the Rand Corporation, the total economic costs of dementia – from $159 billion to $215 billion yearly — slightly surpass those of heart disease and exceed cancer care costs by 30 percent.  Yet, the federal government spends five times more on heart disease research than on Alzheimer’s research and eight times more on cancer research.

That’s why in addition to his roles as a senior administrator and researcher, David Morgan, PhD, chief executive officer of the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute, dedicates time advocating for more Alzheimer’s research funding at the national and state levels. Dr. Morgan, is a founding member and lead representative of the ResearchersAgainstAlzheimer’s, a coalition focusing the energies of the research community on the aggressive goal of stopping Alzheimer’s by 2025.

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David Morgan, PhD

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“The major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is old age,” said Dr. Morgan, distinguished professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at the Morsani College of Medicine. “As we see gains in longevity, due largely to success in treating other diseases, and as more baby boomers pass age 65, the financial impact of Alzheimer’s and related dementias on Medicare will overwhelm our country’s capacity to maintain the program.”

Dr. Morgan remains optimistic that translational research conducted in the laboratories and clinics at the Institute can contribute to discoveries leading to two things by 2025:  the tools to prevent Alzheimer’s in high-risk older adults not yet showing symptoms, and treatments to effectively slow progression of the memory-robbing neurodegenerative disease in those diagnosed.

“We don’t need breakthroughs to achieve these two goals. We need the public and private resources to do the hard work of proving the science is right,” Dr. Morgan said. “Without the investment, we won’t get there.”

Leading a translational center at forefront of Alzheimer’s research and care

During Dr. Morgan’s tenure, the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute – combining laboratory research, patient clinics, drug trials, and caregiver/health professional/first responder education under one roof — continues to grow and strengthen.

When he was tapped to lead the Institute in 2009, four doctoral researchers occupied less than 30 percent of the partially shelled, seven-floor facility.  Today, nearly 30 basic science and clinical faculty members, primarily from the Morsani College of Medicine, have appointments at the translational research center, bolstered by another dozen associate members from across USF. The building is nearly fully built out and occupied.

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Under Dr. Morgan’s leadership, the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute – a translational research center at the forefront of Alzheimer’s disease research and care — continues to grow and strengthen.

Despite intense competition for reduced research funding, Byrd Institute investigators attracted more than $7.5 million in new research grants and contracts last fiscal year, largely from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private foundations. New and ongoing research focuses on understanding the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s as well as testing whether treatments targeting amyloid (plaques) or tau (tangles) in the brain can halt or slow progression of the disease itself, not just alleviate some symptoms.

“In the first six months I directed this Institute I learned more about the clinical aspects of Alzheimer’s disease than I had in the 20 preceding years,” Dr. Morgan said. “Having physicians who see patients and conduct clinical studies in the same building helps motivate scientists working in the laboratories.  It greatly facilitates the rate at which the laboratory research findings are tested in the clinic.”

Harnessing the power of advanced brain imaging techniques for clinical research

One of Dr. Morgan’s early strategic decisions was to invest in a state-of-the-art positron emission tomography (PET) scanner.  The addition has begun to pay off with a steady increase in patients referred to the Institute’s PET imaging center for brain and oncology diagnostic services. In addition, more clinical studies funded by the NIH and pharmaceutical companies are using an FDA-approved amyloid imaging agent to detect and measure amyloid, a hallmark feature of Alzheimer’s in the brain.  Scientists now know that amyloid plaques begin building up in the brain years before the first signs of memory loss.

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USF is home to one of few Alzheimer’s centers in the country to own a PET scanner, which is used with neuroimaging agents in studies looking to detect signs of Alzheimer’s in the brain before symptoms are displayed. Dr. Morgan, left, with Amanda Smith, MD, the Institute’s medical director, who oversees clinical trials supported by the NIH and pharmaceutical industry.

The Institute expects to be among the 200 sites participating in the recently announced national Imaging Dementia – Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (IDEAS) study to determine the clinical usefulness of amyloid PET scans in helping doctors accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s and other dementias in cases where the cause of cognitive impairment is uncertain. Dr. Morgan is optimistic that the comprehensive study will demonstrate the value of amyloid imaging and advance Medicare and other insurance carriers toward its reimbursement.

“As we run trials evaluating drugs to see if they can reduce amyloid or tau buildup in the brain, we can monitor how much is there before and after and determine if (the investigational therapy) hit the target,” Dr. Morgan said. “It is a very important biomarker for progression of the disease.”

He looks forward to the day when physicians will be able to use advanced brain imaging techniques to screen for Alzheimer’s much like they do now for heart disease, so that intervention can be started early before cell death in the brain becomes irreversible.

Merging interests in memory and age-related brain changes to tackle Alzheimer’s

Dr. Morgan’s 35-year career in neurosciences started at Northwestern University where he did his doctoral research on the neurochemistry of learning and memory. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California School of Gerontology in the early 1980s, he investigated age-related changes in the brains of rodents and humans. During that period momentum began building for federal efforts to combat Alzheimer’s disease and researchers discovered a new cerebrovascular protein, beta amyloid, identified as a pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and prime suspect in triggering nerve cell damage.  Dr. Morgan seized the opportunity to apply his background in aging and brain function on finding drugs to treat Alzheimer’s dementia.

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Dr. Morgan worked with colleagues at USF to develop a mouse genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms early in life. He is an expert in using transgenic mouse models to test new immune therapies against both amyloid and tau — both considered pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Arriving at USF in 1992, he collaborated with colleagues to create a mouse genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms early in life (the APP+PS1 mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease).  Dr. Morgan’s impressive research portfolio includes studies to help determine how inflammation in the brain affects the Alzheimer’s disease process and to test gene therapy and immune therapy against the amyloid peptide. He currently leads a four-year, $1.75-million R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, exploring antibodies to protect against the accumulation of neuron-killing tau tangles in a transgenic mouse model.

Dr. Morgan’s work has been published in many high-impact journals including Science, Nature and the Journal of Neuroscience, and he has consulted with both major pharmaceutical companies and small biotechnology firms on the development of Alzheimer’s therapeutics.

Dr. Morgan shares laboratory space at the Institute with senior scientist Marcia Gordon, PhD, professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology; Daniel Lee, PhD, and Maj-Linda Salenica, PhD, both assistant professors of pharmaceutical sciences; and Kevin Nash, PhD, assistant professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology. While he continues to seek out new research – he and Dr. Nash are teaming up to find ways to enhance anti-inflammatory activity of the protein fractalkine in the brain — lately he spends as much time mentoring junior faculty.

“I’ve reached a point in my career where I feel it’s critically important to help junior faculty improve the grant proposals they write so they can build their own track records as principal investigators,” Dr. Morgan said.

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Early in his scientific career, Dr. Morgan seized the opportunity to apply his background in aging and brain function on finding drugs to treat Alzheimer’s dementia.

Building upon scientific discoveries to find effective treatments

The search for answers about the cause of Alzheimer’s has spanned many theories in the last several decades.

“There’s a broad consensus among most researchers today that a combination of amyloid and tau is needed to cause Alzheimer’s disease.  Amyloid alone is not enough,” Dr. Morgan said. “The accumulation of amyloid outside neurons may trigger abnormal inflammation in the brain, which in turn causes tau tangles to build up inside the neurons and that leads to neuron death.”

The exact cascade of events and amount of plaques and tangles resulting in full-blown Alzheimer’s pathology is still unknown, he added, and no doubt complex.

Dr. Morgan, who holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy, is philosophical about what the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute is working toward under his leadership.

“I’m not coming to work because I think we’re going be awarded a patent for a drug that cures Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. “But I am confident that the things we discover at USF, when integrated with the larger community of scientific knowledge, will move us closer to a better understanding of this devastating neurodegenerative disease and result in meaningful treatments to benefit patients and their families.”

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In addition to his roles as senior administrator, scientist and mentor, Dr. Morgan advocates for more Alzheimer’s research funding at the national and state levels.