Dr. Jeffery M. Vance Receives Prestigious Zenith Award

Jeffery M. Vance, M.D., Ph.D., professor in and founding chair of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, was honored recently with the prestigious Zenith Award.

Presented annually since 1991 by the Alzheimer’s Association, the Zenith Award has served as a “Who’s Who” of distinguished physician-scientists engaged in dementia research.

With his Zenith Award, Dr. Vance, who also serves as director of the Center for Genomic Education & Outreach in the Miller School’s John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics (HIHG), will expand on his cutting-edge research seeking a protective factor that lowers Alzheimer’s disease risk.

By 2060, Alzheimer’s disease is projected to affect 13.9 million people in the United States alone — nearly triple today’s approximately 5 million Americans diagnosed with the disease.

The Alzheimer’s Association established the Zenith Society and the Zenith Award program nearly 30 years ago with the goal of providing “recognition and support to innovative investigators.” The program also aims to attract major gifts and donors that will sustain the expansion of innovative research on Alzheimer’s disease.

The Zenith Award selection process is unusual. After the Alzheimer’s Association has narrowed the pool of highly accomplished applicants to a small number of finalists through a peer-review process, donors make the final selection. But not just any donors — Zenith Fellows, who have pledged at least $1 million each to support Alzheimer’s Association programs.

This has led to a unique focus for the awards program. Over the years, the Zenith Society has favored high-risk, high-payoff projects on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias — ambitious studies the federal government is less likely to fund.

For example, past Zenith Award recipients have explored:

  • How specialized support cells in the brain, known as astroglia, impact the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • How immune cells in the blood interact with specific brain cells to affect the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The role that novel factors produced in the brain may have in preventing the formation of toxic beta-amyloid.
  • The types of cells involved in the formation and spread of abnormal tau protein in the brain.

To date, most genetic Alzheimer’s disease research has looked for DNA changes that increase risk. The strongest genetic risk factor for the disease among non-Hispanic whites (Europeans) and Japanese people is the ApoE gene, specifically the ApoE4 form of the gene. However, it has been known for some time that ApoE4 does not cause the same strong risk for Alzheimer’s disease in African carriers of ApoE4, even though the protein is identical. The reason, however, remains elusive.

Recently, the UM Alzheimer’s group identified a DNA region that carries this protective change in the African form of the ApoE4 allele. The goal of Dr. Vance’s research is to discover the actual DNA change that causes this protection, which would be the first major protective factor identified for Alzheimer’s disease. This could eventually lead to a therapy for ApoE4 carriers.

To date, the Zenith Society has provided nearly $40 million in funding to approximately 130 leading Alzheimer’s disease researchers. Novel funding mechanisms like the Zenith Award have done much to cultivate creative research by investigators like Dr. Vance who are embarking on studies that may lead to new therapies and cures for Alzheimer’s disease.

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