Lary C. Walker, PhD, research professor of neuropharmacology and neurologic diseases and associate professor of neurology, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, is a recipient of the 2014 MetLife Foundation Awards for Medical Research. The winners were recognized at a scientific briefing and awards ceremony today in New York.
Walker was recognized with his Germany-based colleague Mathias Jucker, PhD, for pioneering a unifying principle for the onset and evolution of late-life brain disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, based on similarities with rare, fatal disorders known as prion diseases. Jucker is full professor at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research and German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Tübingen, Germany.
Together, Walker and Jucker have amassed compelling experimental evidence that small aggregates of the basic proteins in prion diseases act as seeds that start a domino-like chain reaction that causes similar proteins to aggregate and spread the disease throughout the brain. They have jointly published a number of seminal papers on the seeding concept in age-related brain diseases, beginning with a study in Science in 2006, and their work has decisively established the seeding model as a comprehensive mechanistic explanation for the abnormal assembly of proteins and their spread through the brain in many of the devastating, untreatable brain diseases that affect humans.
Examples of their accomplishments include finding: protein-rich seeds of aggregated amyloid-beta (Aβ) underlie both the emergence and progression of Aβ abnormalities in the brains of animals; variations in the size and molecular structure of these seeds profoundly influence their disease-causing characteristics; and small, soluble collections of Aβ are especially potent seeds and are key targets for therapeutic intervention and possibly also early biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease in bodily fluids.
"I am thrilled to receive this award, which has honored so many pioneering Alzheimer's researchers during the past quarter century," says Walker. "I am indebted to the many colleagues and students who have made my research possible, and to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory University for their continuing support."
According to recent estimates, without the development of treatments that either delay Alzheimer's disease onset or slow its progression, by 2050 more than 100 million people worldwide will be living with Alzheimer's disease. The time spent caring for people with Alzheimer's disease will be measured in billions of hours, and the cost will be trillions of dollars.
At the heart of the MetLife awards is a belief that research is the road to understanding and ultimately treating Alzheimer's disease. Walker's award comes with a $100,000 institutional grant, which he will use to further his research with his colleagues at Yerkes, Emory, Georgia Tech and the University of Tübingen to better understand how Alzheimer's disease progresses through the brain and why the disease affects people in different ways.
"We are proud of Dr. Walker and his many scientific achievements," says Stuart Zola, PhD, director of the Yerkes Research Center. "His research findings today are shaping the research of tomorrow, and the ultimate benefit will be improved health for our nation and the world."
Established in 1930, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center paved the way for what has become the National Institutes of Health-funded National Primate Research Center (NPRC) program. For more than eight decades, the Yerkes Research Center has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve human health and well-being. Today, the Yerkes Research Center is one of only eight NPRCs. The center provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries, and research at the center is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate, quality animal care.