Led by groundbreaking research that helped develop the new Alzheimer’s disease drug, the brain health research institute at the Charleston VA will become the coordinating center for that research within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, officials said.National and Charleston leaders gathered Nov. 17 for an event to kick off the new National Institute for Brain Health, which is part of the Ralph H. Johnson VA Health Care System. The site is housed at the WestEdge development downtown, which the city of Charleston helped create and where the city leased space years ago, which just happened to become the site of the institute, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said.”We’re true partners,” he joked. “We’re your landlord.”
The Charleston institute actually began a few years ago when the researchers presented a plan to the leadership of the Charleston VA for research seeking a cure. It was set against the massive scale of the problem: More than 750,000 veterans in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s or related dementias, said Scott Isaacks, director and CEO of the Charleston VA.
“That number shocked me,” he said. But the team there is determined to be “a leading force in finding that cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Isaacks said.
Lead researchers Dr. Jacobo Mintzer (left) and Dr. Olga Brawman-Mintzer kick off a tour of the National Institute for Brain Health at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Health Care System. Provided
A key component of that is the institute’s lead researchers, Dr. Jacobo Mintzer and Dr. Olga Brawman-Mintzer. They worked on clinical trials at the Charleston VA that resulted in the new breakthrough Alzheimer’s drug lecanemab, which not only reduced cognitive decline by 27 percent compared to placebo but had a corresponding reduction in amyloid plaques in the brain, which are thought to be a source of the damage.The Mintzers are now working on a prevention trial with the drug in those at high risk for the disease who already have some plaque in the brain but have not yet been diagnosed with memory problems.
Through a long career treating patients and researching, Jacobo Mintzer lamented he often found he didn’t have the “tools,” the medication or the therapy patients really needed.
“I am happy today to tell you we do,” he said. “Today, we can offer these veterans the care they deserve.”In fact, one of the early tasks the institute will handle is to set up protocols for how to administer the new Alzheimer’s drug in VA centers across the country “to ensure that we can not only have best practices but also collect data on the long-term effects,” said Dr. Rachel Ramoni, chief of research and development for the VA.
The VA recently fulfilled its enrollment goal in the Million Veteran Program and the aim now is to use that program to look at how genetics, exposures, lifestyle and other factors impact health. That should include helping to treat the brain in the same way that genetics is helping to drive cancer therapies, Ramoni said.
“Precision brain health is about matching the right treatment to the right person,” she said.The new therapies and foundation of work at the VA on these diseases is providing new hope, said Dr. Carolyn Clancy, assistant undersecretary for health for discovery, education and affiliate networks at the VA.”But we have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said. “And that’s where this institute comes in.”It will serve as a coordinating center for that research. The VA has intramural grants to fund Alzheimer’s and dementia work that was roughly $12 million in fiscal year 2023, said Ying-Yee Kong, scientific program manager in the VA Office of Research and Development.When Clancy first met the Mintzers about a decade ago, they were considering retirement but were thinking about putting it off for a new research opportunity that would eventually lead them to the institute.
“And thank God for that,” she said.