Every 66 seconds in the United States someone develops Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But a researcher at Penn State believes he can cure the deadly disease.
During his recent 50th birthday party, Gong Chen stood in front of a group of friends, family members and colleagues and delivered a declaration for the “second half” of his life.
“Everyone was there, even my mother came from China to be at the party,” Chen said. “I told them I now know the purpose of my life is to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
As he delivered the speech, Chen reflected back to the discovery that altered the course of his life and potentially millions of lives around the world.
“I gave a talk in 2007 about stem cell research, which at the time was the frontier of brain trauma treatment,” Chen said. “I remember thinking that it just wasn’t going to work and I began to wonder what we can do as an alternative.”
For the next six years, Chen worked in his lab on Penn State’s University Park campus with students and colleagues to find that alternative. And then it happened. Chen discovered a way to activate glial cells, which are supporting cells of the central nervous system, into functioning neurons that can replace those damaged by brain trauma or diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The discovery was made while testing the brains of mice that were 14 months old, the equivalent of a 60-year-old human brain.
If successful, Chen’s discovery could halt and reverse the effects of brain injury, but the breakthrough appears to be most beneficial for degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is the main focus of Chen’s work. Early symptoms of the disease are tough to detect, but most patients begin with short-term memory loss. As the disease progresses, patients will experience dementia, which is the loss of the ability to think and remember. Further advancement results in difficulty with speech, mood swings and behavioral issues. As the disease enters its final stages, patients can hallucinate and eventually withdraw from society and human interaction. In the final stages, patients lose control of basic bodily functions, including the ability to eat, and eventually die, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There are more than 5 million people living with the disease and of that group more than 95 percent are age 65 or older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. My dad fit into this category.
My father, Jack Valsechi, was 67 when he began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. At the time, he was caring for his mother who was dying from the disease. I recall him saying that he was never afraid of anything in his life until he was diagnosed.
I often struggle with the thought of him watching his mother suffer with, and eventually die from, a disease he also had. It was as if death was giving him a morbid glimpse of his future.
“That was a tough time for your father,” my mom, Carol Valsechi, said. “You know how much he loved her and he was helpless, he couldn’t do anything for her.”
Chen said one of the toughest realities of the disease is that caregivers have no option other than to watch their loved one deteriorate and eventually die. And along the way they become a burden on families and society.
In 2016, total payments for health care, long-term care and hospice are estimated to be $236 billion for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, with just less than half of the costs borne by Medicare. Unless something is done, in 2050, Alzheimer’s is projected to cost more than $1 trillion, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Many people don’t see all of the social problems caused by the disease,” Chen said. “But I feel very excited about my work as a scientist and it would be real satisfaction if I can solve a major problem for society.”
Since 2013, Chen has published more than 10 articles in medical journals about his research findings. In his lab, mice are injected with what Chen referred to as a “cocktail of molecules”.
“With a direct injection into the brain of the mouse model we deliver neuroD1, a protein coding gene that converts existing glial cells into active neurons,” Chen said. “I believe the newly activated neurons will stop and reverse the effects of the disease.”
There are five Federal Drug Administration approved drugs that treat symptoms of the disease. The drugs can temporarily help with memory loss and thinking problems, but they do not treat the underlying causes of the disease.
My father was prescribed Donepezil when he was in his 10th year with the disease. The drug, which treats all stages of Alzheimer’s, is administered to help with memory loss. It worked for him when he began to take it, but as the disease progressed the drug’s effects diminished.
As he lost memory and focus he began to tell tales of aliens that abducted him and touched him on the arm, which gave him super powers. As he would tell the stories, he occasionally snapped back into reality and realized how he was slipping. He would catch himself only to lose his mental balance once again and forget who and where he was.
“Hearing these stories is one of the toughest parts of my journey,” Chen said. “When my first paper was published, it received recognition in the press and I had phone calls from families desperate for help.”
Every week, Chen said he receives messages from people looking for help, he has even received medical records to review. He said he returns every call and responds to every message he receives, because this is his calling.
“This is my life now and I am embracing it,” Chen said. “My work is hard, but I love what I’m doing and I feel it is important.”
Every scientific breakthrough has its skeptics and Chen knows this will be the same. He acknowledges that he will be challenged and the road ahead will be filled with success and failure, but he said he will continue no matter what happens. And if he dies without finding a cure he hopes that his work will provide a blueprint for future scientists.
The answer he seeks didn’t come quick enough for my father. He died on Oct. 24, the same day his mother died 20 years earlier. He was laid to rest in the plot next to her.
“Perhaps curing Alzheimer’s is an extravagant dream for me,” Chen said. “But everyone should have a dream and my dream is that one day Alzheimer’s will be read about in a history book.”