UNLV School of Medicine third-year student Justin Bauzon was in a psychology course at Las Vegas’ Advanced Technologies Academy when he became “absolutely infatuated with the brain,” the organ Nobel laureate James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, called “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.”
Bauzon’s fascination wasn’t just a high school passing fancy — his interest continued to grow as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in neurobiology, the study of the nervous system and the workings of the brain.
“Each year, I took every college course I could sign up for that was neuro-related,” he said. ”I was fascinated by the brain’s complexity and how it could determine the very behaviors and interactions that make us human. I found the idea that there was much we didn’t know about the brain so perplexing — the lack of truly curative interventions for many brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s attests to how much we still have to learn. I saw this gap in knowledge as an opportunity where I could contribute and really make a difference.”
With that background in mind, the fact that Bauzon recently became the lead author of an important research article in the highly respected, peer-reviewed Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy journal doesn’t seem at all unlikely. His team’s publication examines whether drugs used for one purpose can also be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, a progressive and fatal brain disorder with a long goodbye, one that often reduces sufferers to quarrelsome infancy.
“Justin Bauzon’s paper shows how many repurposed drugs are being tested in Alzheimer’s disease and where the drugs came from in terms of conditions for which they are already approved,” said Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, the former medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and now director of the Chambers-Grundy Center for Transformative Neuroscience in the UNLV department of brain health. “This is an important contribution to understanding Alzheimer’s drug development and will encourage others to use the repurposing strategy, ultimately resulting in better treatments for patients.”
Trials for the repurposing or repositioning of drugs are not unusual. Because they have been previously optimized for efficacy, safety, and bioavailability, considerable investments in research and development can be compressed through repurposing. It is also not unusual for one drug to be effective for more than one disease. Gabapentin, for instance, was originally developed for treating epilepsy and is now an effective pain-killer. Sildenafil, originally developed for treating high blood pressure, is today more often used to treat erectile dysfunction. Drugs created to combat one type of cancer have been found to be effective against other types.
“Millions of dollars can be shaved off by bypassing some early trials that drugs go through,” Bauzon noted.
Data, he said, is too preliminary to conclude which, if any, of the 58 drugs now in different stages of clinical trials for repurposing will ever be designated as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. “The best that can be said is that some seem to have more potential than others,” he said.
Bauzon doubts any one pill will ever be the cure-all for the disease that now affects more than 5 million Americans, robbing people of memory. He believes many therapeutics will be used to mitigate the disease that Americans now fear even more than cancer or heart disease.
Dr. Dale Netski, the UNLV School of Medicine director of medical student research, called Bauzon’s first-author publication in a very competitive peer-reviewed journal ”an amazing accomplishment for a third-year medical student. I hope that Justin will continue to work hard to close knowledge gaps, leading to innovative therapeutic approaches to combat Alzheimer’s.”
It was early last summer that Bauzon began what became a year-long study that he carried out with the help of Cummings and former Ruvo Center pharmacist Garam Lee. Given his fascination with the brain, it isn’t surprising that Bauzon reached out about possible projects to Cummings, one of the world’s top Alzheimer’s researchers. In 2014 Cummings released a study that found between 2002-12, the failure rate for drugs developed specifically to treat the disease was a woeful 99.6 percent.
Cummings told Bauzon a drug repurposing study could be of real value.
“I found it remarkable how humble Dr. Cummings is,” Bauzon said. “He always listened to my questions, answered them fully. I always felt that he was accessible.”
Following his 2015 graduation from UC Berkeley, Bauzon did not immediately apply to medical school. He did administrative work for Las Vegas bariatric surgeon Darren Soong, volunteered at the Ruvo Center, and worked as a research assistant with Rochelle Hines, an assistant professor of psychology. “She specialized in neurodevelopmental research, and it was especially thanks to her passion, and limitless patience that I was driven to pursue research in medical school.” Soong, he said, helped convince him that UNLV’s medical school, with a curriculum designed to help the community, would be the best place for him to pursue his medical education.
Bauzon’s parents — his father is a family physician and his mother a neonatal nurse who decided to concentrate on the raising of her children — immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the ‘70s. Bauzon’s family moved to Las Vegas from California when he was 10.
Bauzon said his mother’s decision “to design an at-home after-school curriculum that involved science experiments and regular creative writing exercises” has had much to do with his seemingly insatiable appetite for learning.
“Learning became fun,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have a mother who always made it something I looked forward to.”