Accelerating the quest to treat Alzheimer’s

Charles Fipke, left, with Fipke Professor in Alzheimer’s Research Haakon Nygaard. Photo: Brian Kladko

Charles Fipke, left, with Fipke Professor in Alzheimer’s Research Haakon Nygaard. Photo: Brian Kladko

The current numbers are ominous and the projections even worse – over 747,000 Canadians 65 and older now live with Alzheimer’s disease, a number expected to double to 1.4 million by 2031. Dr. Haakon Nygaard, UBC’s new Fipke Professor in Alzheimer’s Research, says Alzheimer’s affects everybody, not just those afflicted with it.

“It’s everyone’s disease,” he says. “The economic impact and societal burden is so massive.”

It’s estimated that, unless significant strides are made, the direct and indirect costs of dementia in Canada will total nearly $300 billion a year by 2040. Yet just a fraction of that is being invested in finding a cure, says Nygaard. While progress is being made in slowing the progression of symptoms, there are currently no effective drugs for treating the underlying disease.

Dr. Nygaard hopes to speed up the quest to find new treatments thanks largely in part to a leadership gift to UBC’s start an evolution campaign.

Charles Fipke, whose geological discoveries made Canada one of the leading producers of diamonds, has pledged a total of $9.1 million to the Faculty of Medicine, a portion of which endowed Dr. Nygaard’s professorship at UBC and equipped his lab with cutting-edge equipment

Fipke, a UBC alumnus from Kelowna, was moved to make the gifts by the plight of his longtime friend, Bill Bennett, the former premier of British Columbia, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I was stunned to learn about Bill Bennett’s illness – yet another great mind stricken by Alzheimer’s,” Fipke said. “I want to do anything I can to help UBC’s researchers find a cure.”

Dr. Nygaard joined the Faculty of Medicine from the Yale School of Medicine in July 2014. He is seeing patients and conducting research in the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, which unites under one roof UBC’s and Vancouver Coastal Health’s scientific and clinical expertise across neuroscience, psychiatry and neurology.

As both a clinician and a scientist, he hopes to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical neurology to facilitate clinical testing of new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. He has been working with the Faculty of Medicine to create a network of scientists across the country to perform dementia research and accelerate drug development. The Canadian Pipeline for Alzheimer’s Disease Therapeutics aims to produce two drugs with promising treatment potential within a five-year period.

“This type of network puts UBC at the heart of dementia research in Canada,” says Nygaard. He says Fipke was instrumental in creating this vision of pooling the country’s resources to find a cure.

In his own research, Nygaard is enrolling patients in a one-year study of Saracatinib, a drug originally developed for cancer, for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. He is also exploring a potential role for anti-convulsant drugs in treating the disease, which have shown promise in preclinical models.

He hopes the results could have a tangible effect on the treatment of dementia, and that others are inspired by Fipke’s generosity to get involved in helping to find a cure.

“If it wasn’t for people like him, progress in diseases like Alzheimer’s would be so much more difficult,” he says.