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South Carolina’s major research universities join forces on $10M Alzheimer’s effort

Ross Norton //September 29, 2023//

South Carolina’s major research universities join forces on $10M Alzheimer’s effort

Ross Norton //September 29, 2023//

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Three of the state’s largest research universities are joining together to use $10 million in legislative funding to create a center and develop strategies for dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Clemson University, the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina are combining their expertise and resources to create a first-of-its-kind research center in South Carolina. This collaboration is part of a multi-institutional effort to establish the first federally designated Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in the Palmetto State.

“As the population ages and the prevalence of Alzheimer’s and dementia increases, solutions rooted in collaboration and coordination are essential to reach a future free of these devastating diseases,” Heather Snyder, Alzheimer's Association vice president of medical and scientific relations, said in a news release. “This effort will translate research advances into improved statewide access to diagnosis, care and treatment for the more than 95,000 South Carolinians living with Alzheimer’s and their families.”

Gov. Henry McMaster on Sept. 6 ceremonially signed bill  S. 569, which requires a comprehensive statewide plan to address issues related to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Part of this strategic approach includes the pursuit of federal ADRC status through the collaborative efforts of the state’s top research institutions, said the news release, which was issued by all three universities. “The goal is to establish a highly visible, accessible, trusted and coordinated source of information so that patients and families of all income levels are better connected to resources, research opportunities and more when enduring the challenges brought on by these diagnoses,” it stated.

“As an academic health system, we are uniquely positioned to engage in cutting-edge research aimed at understanding the underlying causes of disease, developing new treatments and improving diagnostic tools,” Lori McMahon, MUSC vice president for research and professor of neuroscience, said in the release. “Our multidisciplinary team, including fundamental and clinical scientists, neurologists, geriatricians, psychiatrists and more, collaborate to advance the understanding of our brains and how to keep them healthy.” 

MUSC is home to the Carroll A. Campbell Jr. Neuropathology Laboratory, founded in 2009 after a  gift from the family of South Carolina’s 112th governor, who died from Alzheimer's disease. By collecting donor brain tissue from individuals with neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's disease, as well as age-matched healthy brains, this biorepository provides valuable information about the rate and cause of these disorders in South Carolina and serves as a link between scientists and clinicians to generate discoveries that can change patient care, the release stated.

“At USC, we talk often about the power of interdisciplinary research to solve big problems by addressing multiple dimensions at once. The same goes for collaborations among research institutions,” USC Vice President for Research Julius Fridriksson said in the release. “By combining the unique strengths of USC, MUSC and Clemson and focusing them on supporting South Carolina families suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, we will multiply our positive impact on the Palmetto State.”

Alzheimer’s disease research has been at the forefront of the priorities of the USC School of Public Health, the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine, the university says. In 2019, researchers received National Institutes of Health funding to establish the Carolina Center on Alzheimer’s Disease and Minority Research. USC also is engaged in neuroimaging research and provides technology to the federal Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Additionally, Dr. Leonardo Bonilha at USC’s School of Medicine in Columbia, is leading the newly created Rural Brain Health Center, a statewide initiative aimed at improving access to care, diagnosis and management of memory and cognitive problems.

“Our Institute for Engaged Aging successfully brings together experts in psychology, computing, bioengineering, social sciences, nursing and other disciplines to solve complex problems related to public health,” said Tanju Karanfil, Clemson University senior vice president for research, scholarship and creative endeavors. “That strong multidisciplinary approach, coupled with Clemson’s legacy of outreach across South Carolina and collaborations with USC and MUSC, will lead to meaningful discoveries to support patients afflicted by degenerative brain diseases, and their families. Translational health research and community outreach are strengths at Clemson.”

The Clemson University Institute for Engaged Aging in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences is committed to research, teaching and community outreach that promote healthy aging across the lifespan regardless of social, economic or health status. The institute recently expanded its Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training study — the largest study of its kind to date — which investigates methods for the prevention and early detection of dementia. Additionally, the IEA has several National Institute on Aging-funded studies focused on the early identification of cognitive decline in adults 65 and older, a critical area of need among aging populations.

South Carolina is one of 20 states deemed "neurology deserts,” meaning there is a shortage of neurologists that is only expected to grow as cases increase, the release said. A dedicated center in South Carolina would offer citizens support with obtaining a diagnosis and medical management, information about Alzheimer's and related dementias, services and resources, opportunities for volunteers to participate in clinical trials and studies and research registries and support groups and other special programs for volunteers and their families.

S.C. Senate President Thomas C. Alexander (R-Oconee and Pickens counties) said in the release: "Our three research universities working together with the Alzheimer's Advisory Council on a comprehensive statewide plan to address this dreaded disease speaks to what makes South Carolina a special place. We are committed to putting the well-being of our citizens first by providing informed clinical care, early detection and caregiver support services to individuals and families coping with Alzheimer' disease and related dementias."