Descendants of one of the first ethnic groups to settle Eastern Washington have helped solve a key mystery in the workings of Alzheimer’s disease.
In reports published today in the journal Science, researchers say they have isolated a defective Alzheimer’s gene culled from an 8-year-long investigation of several Volga German families, including two from Eastern Washington. Discovery of the gene, and a protein it produces, could speed development of drugs to combat the brain-destroying disorder.
Reubin Kissler of Spokane, whose family was involved in the research, said he hoped the latest development would spare others the pain of the disease.
“I’m very delighted, of course,” he said, “and should be, because my family was affected. Three of my family had it.”
Volga Germans, who settled Russia’s fertile Volga River Valley in the 1760s, created one of the largest migrations into the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and helped settle many Eastern Washington towns, including Ritzville and Odessa.
While Volga Germans are no more prone to Alzheimer’s than other ethnic groups, the lack of intermarriage in their ranks preserved a mutant Alzheimer’s gene that Thomas Bird, a University of Washington neurologist and medical geneticist, first started tracking in 1987.
His work ended up reaching back several generations and at one point enlisted a Russian professor who hand-copied genealogies from two Russian villages that were the ancestral homes of the Alzheimer’splagued families.
“The families were very important,” Bird said Thursday. “We wouldn’t have found the gene without the families.”
Bird described some of his findings three weeks ago in a Calgary meeting of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.
The news thrilled Richard Scheuerman, a St. John educator and historian who helped ferry genealogical records to Bird from Russia.
‘All this work that we’ve been doing finally amounted to something,” Scheuerman said.
Bird said the new gene, found on chromosome 1, creates a protein similar to one made by another Alzheimer’s-related gene found on chromosome 14 in June in Toronto. The protein, he said, “is a whole new clue to the chemical mechanisms that are underlying Alzheimer’s disease. And this clue was not present a couple of months ago.”
Armed with this new information, scientists now can develop new ideas and strategies for determining both the cause of Alzheimer’s, which affects 4 million Americans, and ways of preventing it, Bird said.
Rudolph Tanzi of Massachusetts General Hospital, a principal collaborator in the research, said the discovery puts researchers on a fast track for understanding what causes formation in the brain of amyloid-beta, a gluelike substance that is toxic to brain cells and is a primary feature of Alzheimer’s.
“This is an incredibly important discovery,” said Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, a professor of neurology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. “This means that genetics has pretty much solved the mystery of early-onset AD (Alzheimer’s disease), and it clears a path for scientific research that wasn’t there before.”
With a total of three Alzheimer’s genes now identified, she said, researchers are free to focus on specific molecular processes.
“The body makes about 100,000 proteins,” said Morrison-Bogorad. “Now, instead of having to study 100,000, we can concentrate on the three proteins expressed (made) by these genes.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Eric Sorensen staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.