Dr. Jeffrey L. Cummings, UNLV research professor and a leading expert on Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials, garnered a first-of-its-kind leadership award from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to support and expand the world’s only research observatory devoted exclusively to Alzheimer’s disease clinical trials and drug development.
The competitive $3 million award will enable Cummings and a multidisciplinary team of UNLV students and researchers to broaden efforts dedicated to studying Alzheimer’s drug mechanisms, trial designs, and outcomes to find ways to get new treatments to patients faster.
“It’s fantastic news and makes us even more energized to do the research that we’re already doing and that we hope has the ability to transform people’s lives,” Cummings said. “It creates a runway for us to do more with the observatory, and we’re just going to make it explode with this new support.”
For the past five years, Cummings and his team have completed a comprehensive analysis of the pipeline of drugs in clinical trials for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. He likens the work to a medical version of air traffic control. But instead of monitoring the ascent, descent, and landing of airplanes, Cummings and his team study the traffic patterns for all of the clinical trials currently underway.
“We’re watching which clinical trials are landing, which ones are going out, which drugs are promising, what new biomarkers suggest how trials can be performed better, and what new safety problems are emerging that would alert us to drugs that should probably not be advanced to later-stage trials,” Cummings said.
In a report published in July 2020, Cummings and his team found that there are 121 unique therapies in 136 clinical trials for Alzheimer’s in the pipeline. One new drug therapy, Aducanumab, has been submitted to the FDA and a decision on approval is expected by June. It has the potential to be a very exciting development, Cummings said, as it’s been almost 20 years since a new treatment for Alzheimer’s has come to market.
Even if Aducanumab — which Cummings calls a “breakthrough therapy” — is not approved, there are three other drugs from the same class that look promising.
“I think there’s a very good chance that we’re going to have a new therapy for Alzheimer’s disease in the foreseeable future,” Cummings said.
The new grant from the NIA - awarded to just 10 other researchers across the country - will enable Cummings and his team of fellow researchers and students, including UNLV computer scientists, to expand and deepen their analysis. First, they’ll create a searchable online database, which will allow scientists from around the world to access and interrogate the data more easily.
The grant will also expand the team’s analysis of drug outcomes and allow it to explore other diseases including Parkinson’s disease and ALS.
“I think there’s a lot to be learned by looking at Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and other neurodegenerative diseases because many of the same processes are involved, and what is learned in one set of trials for one disease might be applicable to another disease,” Cummings said. “That would be so fantastic — to find one drug that could affect multiple diseases.”
The first-of-a-kind award is also promising as it signals burgeoning government support for Alzheimer’s disease research — filling a vacancy left behind by pharmaceutical companies focused on other diseases like cancer. Just last year, UNLV’s department of brain health launched the Chambers-Grundy Center for Transformative Neuroscience which houses the clinical trial observatory.
Patients and caregivers, too, are a significant ally in the search for effective Alzheimer’s treatments.
“Without them we could never do any clinical trials,” Cummings said. “They have withstood many disappointments over the years, so the positive signals that we’re starting to see in the pipeline are so important. I think we’re coming closer and closer to what they want to achieve, which is new therapies for them, their friends, and their children.”
The NIA grant is the latest milestone for the department of brain health, which was launched by the School of Integrated Health Sciences in 2019 to advance research, education, and practice to benefit brain health and the care and treatment of people with brain disorders.
“The best-case scenario is that we are able to guide people about how to do clinical trials that can be better, shorter, smaller, and less expensive so that more trials can be done, and we have a better chance of getting more drugs to patients faster,” said Cummings. “Our ultimate goal is to transform people’s lives through new medications.”