Penn Medicine Investigators Receive $4.8m Pilot Grant to Lead Study of Genetic Connection to Asians in both U.S. & Canada

Penn Medicine Investigators Receive $4.8m Pilot Grant to Lead Study of Genetic Connection to Asians in both U.S. & Canada TrialsiteN

Li-Sang Wang, PhD, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania now directs a team of researchers just awarded a two-year pilot grant expected to total $4.8 million from the National Institute on Aging (NIH), part of the National Institutes of Health to study the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease in individuals of Asian heritage. With a growing movement toward precision medicine, this new initiative is called Asian Cohort for Alzheimer’s Disease (ACAD) and involves the enrollment of 5,000 people of Asian ancestry from both the United States and Canada. A large enough cohort to enable the discovery of new gene variants related to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) risk. Importantly, this Perelman-led group has already established a social and community infrastructure supporting the study of neurodegenerative disease in Asian communities across America and Canada.

The Challenge

Affecting approximately 6.5 million people in the U.S. and Canada combined, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia among seniors. While the cause of AD is still unclear and the progression of new therapeutic challenges challenging in the last couple decades, scientists continue to search for clues to the disease’s origin in large genetic studies as well as lifestyle and other factors.  Although susceptibility to diseases may differ by ethnicity, and in fact, small genetic studies reveal that Asians may have a particular set of genetic risk factors for AD, studies of this (and many other complex diseases) to date focus almost exclusively on white populations (e.g. people of European ancestry).

The Study

The team will enroll a total of 5,000 participants of Asian ancestry in a bid to discover new gene variants to AD risk. With a focus on participants 60 and above with some evidence of cognitive impairment, in addition to age, and gender-matched controls who have no cognitive complaints.  The team will compare the DNA, medical histories, and lifestyle factors of these two groups for clues to risk for dementia, and will track participants’ memory and other cognitive scores.

Wang and team seek to demonstrate the feasibility of a wider project by first enrolling and beginning studies of a smaller cohort of ethnic Chinese participants at a number of academic centers in both the U.S. and Canada. In addition, the team will conduct pilot studies for recruiting Korean and Vietnamese Americans to validate recruitment strategies and assessment of procedures in preparation for the full project. ACAD investigators have invested heavily in the enrollment team’s crucial role in engaging directly with local ethnic communities and their senior populations, with bilingual staffing and in a culturally sensitive way, to develop long-term trust and thereby enhance the recruitment effort.

The study is led by University of Pennsylvania with participation of investigators from University of California, San Francisco, University of Southern California and Boston University. Other participating institutions include University of British Columbia, University of California, San Diego, Columbia University, Englewood Health, Indiana University, University of Massachusetts Boston, Stanford University, University of Southern California, Southern California Eye Institute, University of Toronto and University of Washington.

The Principal Investigator

With a distinguished track record of success in the area of research on the genetics of neurodegenerative disease and the management of collaborations in this field, Li-Sang Wang also co-directs the Penn Neurodegeneration Genomics Center, and the NIA-funded Genome Center for Alzheimer’s Disease (GCAD) and NIH Genetics of Alzheimer’s Disease Data Storage Site (NIAGADS). 

The Department

Professor Wang is a faculty member of the newly found Penn Center for Global Genomics and Health Equity directed by Sarah Tishkoff, PhD, a professor of Genetics and Biology: Professor Tishkoff serves on the studies’ scientific advisory board. Professor Tishkoff runs the Tishkoff Lab at Perelman School of Medicine.

Lead Research/Investigators

Li-Sang Wang, PhD, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine

Gerard Schellenberg, PhD, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Mingyao Li, PhD, professor of Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics (DBEI)

Helena Chui, MD, Chair and Professor of Neurology, Raymond and Betty McCarron Chair in Neurology, University of Southern California

Van Ta Park, PhD, MPH, Associate Professor, Community Health Systems,  University of California, San Francisco

Gyungah Jun, PhD, Assistant Professor, Medicine, Boston University

Call to Action: Those industry sponsors (biopharma) interested in this central nervous system and precision-based neurodegeneration condition study should follow and even connect with this group. They are building a compelling connection to Asian communities for purposes of research.