Massachusetts Neuroscience Consortium aims to tackle neurodegenerative disease

July 27, 2012

Neurons and tangles (credit: National Institute on Aging)

A coalition of academic researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and state government is coming together to confront the challenge of curing neurodegenerative disease.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer from neurodegenerative diseases. For most, diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s attack slowly and lead us down a slope of gradually deteriorating mental or physical function that current scientific methods are able to diagnose only after debilitating symptoms have set in, and not cure.

In June, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick joined Jeffrey Flier, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard, and representatives from major pharmaceutical companies announced the formation of the Massachusetts Neuroscience Consortium.

This $1.75 million partnership is intended to fundamentally shift approaches to neurological disease research. It aims to establish an environment for the sharing of knowledge and resources between companies in what is often a ferociously competitive industry.

“Neuroscience is profoundly complex,” Flier said. “It is absolutely clear that new, bold approaches involving unprecedented collaborations are vital for our success in treating these devastating conditions.”

Within the consortium, scientists will work to discover interesting genetic or protein targets, which will provide a design framework for pharmaceutical companies’ drug development process. This initial discovery step would receive input from both academic and industry scientists, pooling their knowledge and expertise. The seven founding members of the consortium — Merck, Pfizer, Abbot, Biogen, Sunovion, Janssen and EMD Serono — have put forth a genuine effort to work with each other and the Massachusetts academic community.


Of the major neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s is, by far, the biggest threat. There are almost 5.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, a number that is expected to triple in the next few decades. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the Alzheimer’s Association estimates its economic impact will total roughly $200 billion this year.

The dollar amount is also growing, and rapidly, as lifespans increase and more people enter old age. More than 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s, and almost half develop it after age 85. If nothing changes, the total economic cost of Alzheimer’s alone will reach a staggering $1.1 trillion annually by 2050, almost 10 percent of the current U.S. GDP.


Neurobehavior Lab (credit: HDNC)

“This is a tsunami,” said Adrian Ivinson, director of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center (HNDC). “We’re all standing around on the beach, looking at this wave and saying, ‘Boy, that wave is big, and that’s going to do a lot of damage.’ We need to move to higher ground. Now.”

Founders of the community of 900 members recognized that an intensely focused, highly collaborative and coordinated effort must be made to unravel the many complexities of diseases of the brain, a task far too great for any single organization or laboratory.

Building a community

As director of the HNDC, Ivinson, along with his colleagues, have confronted the issue for more than a decade. Founded in 2001 by Martin and Selkoe, and funded by private philanthropists, the HNDC was established with the idea that, while traditional research has been fruitful, there must be a better way to collaborate and to coordinate and share resources.

Joining Selkoe as co-chair last year, Michael Greenberg, chair of the HMS Department of Neurobiology, reinforces HNDC’s goal of bringing together researchers from basic science all the way to the clinic.

Toward this end, the HNDC raised money for training and education, organized symposia and journal clubs, helped recruit subjects for large studies, participated in large international studies and awarded pilot grants for collaborative research projects. The HNDC also established several core facilities that give researchers access to technology and resources that would otherwise be cost or time prohibitive.

The HNDC includes facilities for high-throughput drug discovery, a biomarker-discovery center that houses one of the most comprehensive sample and data repositories for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, biostatistics consultation, tissue analysis and a mouse neurobehavior facility. These core facilities serve as a source of guidance and of communal data and knowledge.

The Laboratory for Drug Discovery in Neurodegeneration, for example, reduces the time and cost requirements for initial drug-discovery assays. The lab provides a high-throughput robotic facility and full-time staff that can lead the development of drug-candidate screens, to complement researchers’ expertise and experience. Pharmaceutical companies hesitant to shoulder the significant investment of these screens can then benefit from these services as researchers license their discoveries.

And even if unsuccessful, the lessons learned by both the researcher and facility staff during the process are shared with all the other members of the HNDC community. In this way, without having to directly collaborate, researchers and laboratories can still benefit from each other’s work — a principle that applies to all the HNDC resources.

Bernardo Sabatini, professor of neurobiology at HMS, runs a renowned neuron-imaging laboratory and is an HNDC collaborator. Sabatini has looked at topics ranging from Alzheimer’s to autism, using techniques from electrical engineering to biochemistry. A highly interdisciplinary researcher, Sabatini’s lab bench is strewn with electrical components and stripped wires alongside dishes of cells and vials of viruses, as though he’s actually building some cybernetic organism.

“Basically every project now involves a very wide spectrum of approaches,” Sabatini said. “But it’s impossible for one lab to be an expert at all of those things.”

With that in mind, Sabatini is consulting with the HNDC on the development of a new technology core that will provide software, engineering and optical support for researchers who lack that specific expertise.

With expensive and difficult-to-purchase microscopes, for example, Sabatini sees many benefits.

“For a lab like ours, which specializes in imaging, it’s really not that hard to build one,” he said. “By working with the core, we would get a machine, and the core would get the knowledge of how to build such a machine — then help other labs do it.”

Through this model of mutually beneficial community building, shared resources and shared knowledge, the HNDC has aided researchers in raising nearly $150 million for their projects, contributed to almost 300 publications and helped license drugs and intellectual property to pharmaceutical companies.