News : 2018 : November

Dr. Jeffery M. Vance Receives Prestigious Zenith Award

Since its inception in 1991, the Zenith Award from the Alzheimer’s Association, has served as a “who’s who” of dementia research.
The latest recipient of this prestigious honor is Jeffery M. Vance, M.D., Ph.D., Professor in and Founding Chair of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Department of Human Genetics and Director of the Center for Genomic Education & Outreach in the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics (HIHG) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine (UMMSM). The Alzheimer’s Association established the Zenith Society and Zenith Award program nearly 30 years ago with the goal of providing “special recognition and support to established investigators with a track record of creativity” while attracting major gifts and donors that will sustain the expansion of important and innovative research on Alzheimer disease.
What makes this award unusual is that after the Alzheimer’s Association has narrowed the pool of highly accomplished applicants for the Zenith Award to a small number of finalists via a standard peer-review process, donors make the final selection. Not just any donors, though. The decision is made by “Zenith Fellows” – donors who pledged at least $1 million each to support Alzheimer’s Association programs. This has led to a unique focus. Over the years, the Zenith Society has favored high risk–high payoff projects on Alzheimer disease and related dementias – ambitious studies that the federal government is less likely to fund.
Past Zenith Award recipients have, for example, explored how specialized support cells in the brain called astroglia impact the onset and progression of Alzheimer disease; examined how immune cells in the blood interact with specific brain cells to affect the progression of Alzheimer disease; investigated the role that novel factors produced in the brain may have in preventing the formation of toxic beta-amyloid; and tried to identify the types of cells involved in the formation and spread of abnormal tau protein in the brain.
Dr. Vance, with his Zenith Award, will expand on his cutting-edge research seeking a protective factor that lowers Alzheimer disease risk. Most genetic Alzheimer disease research to date has looked for DNA changes that increase risk. The strongest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer 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 disease in African carriers of ApoE4, even though the protein is identical. The reason, however, remains elusive. Recently, the UM Alzheimer group has 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 identify the actual DNA change that causes this protection, which would be the first major protective factor identified for Alzheimer disease. This could eventually lead to a therapy for ApoE4 carriers. The Zenith Society has, to date, provided nearly $40 million in Zenith Award funding to approximately 130 leading Alzheimer disease researchers.
By 2060, Alzheimer disease is projected to affect a staggering 13.9 million people in the Unites States alone – nearly triple today’s prevalence of about 5 million Americans who have been diagnosed with this complex disease. Novel funding mechanisms like the Zenith Award have done much to cultivate creative research by investigators such as Dr. Vance who are embarking on studies that may one day allow us to live in world without Alzheimer disease.