BOSTON — Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital will study the genomes of 1,500 Alzheimer’s disease patients and their relatives in a project aimed at finding the genetic causes of the disorder.
The research, paid for by a $5.4 million grant from the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, will do a complete DNA analysis of people with Alzheimer’s disease and their family members, said Rudolph Tanzi, a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School- affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who’s leading the effort.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, which is incurable and robs people of their speech, memories, and other brain functions. The exact cause of the condition remains a mystery. Deciphering the genomes — the complete DNA transcripts — of people with and without the disease will help scientists find what triggers it, and perhaps how to circumvent it, Tanzi said.
“To go from genes to new therapies, you need to understand the details of what’s going on genetically,” he said. “This is the most scientific and reasonable and economical way to do that.”
Researchers have identified about a dozen genes that are closely associated with the disease, Tanzi said. These include the Apoe4 gene that raises the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in old age, as well as at least three other gene mutations linked to rarer forms of the illness that strike younger adults, he said.
Broad studies of the human genome suggest that at least 100 genes may play some role in susceptibility, Tanzi said. The cost of sequencing a whole human genome has dropped from about $1 million to less than $4,500 in eight years. That gives scientists the opportunity to look at each of these suspect genes in patients and their relatives, and determine what sorts of disruptions raise and lower risk, he said.
“We are not focused on incremental progress, but instead are going for the ‘long pass down field’ for a significant impact,” said Jeff Morby, chairman and co-founder of the fund.
Illumina Inc., the biggest maker of gene sequencers, will do the DNA analysis for the project, Tanzi said. The sequencing will take 12 to 18 months, he said. The project’s findings will be shared with researchers around the world, the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund said.
The grant is the largest, single private investment in Alzheimer’s whole genome sequencing, according to the nonprofit Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, which is based in Wellesley, Mass.