ASU partners with Mayo Clinic to combat Alzheimer’s, other issues facing medical industry

ASU researchers are working hand in hand with Mayo Clinic in Arizona to conduct research on issues facing the medical industry, with a significant focus on Alzheimer's disease.

The University announced the partnership’s new researchers and projects for the 2016 ASU-Mayo Seed Grant Program on Nov. 30.

The partnership was created in 2004, and has raised a total of about $2 million, according to Mayo Clinic and ASU

ASU has provided seed grant money for the research under the supervision of Sethuraman Panchanathan, senior vice president of Knowledge Enterprise Development at ASU.

Panchanathan has played a large role in operating the ASU-Mayo Seed Grant Program. He said Mayo Clinic’s medical expertise is some of the best in the industry, while ASU’s research and innovation often leads the pack among universities. Working to bring these two institutions closer together is perhaps the greatest purpose of this program, he said.

“Research projects are one manifestation of ASU and Mayo expertise coming together,” he said.

Combining the innovation of ASU with the medical know-how of Mayo Clinic’s doctors, the partnership is designed to create an ideal situation for patients, he said.

“(Our goal is) to work toward the highest possible level of quality of care, with the lowest possible level of cost,” Panchanathan said. 

Researchers are not only investigating issues facing their profession, but are seeking to transcend those problems and find solutions.

Although researchers in the program are seeking answers for problems related to Parkinson’s, heart failure and other health issues, Panchanathan said Alzheimer’s disease is one of the largest targets of the coming year’s research.

Alzheimer’s is a tangible issue for the U.S. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.3 million Americans have the disease, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the country.

James Fitzpatrick, Alzheimer’s Association director of programs & advocacy, said the disease particularly affects Arizona.

“Almost everyone in our state has a relative who has it,” he said. “Arizona is projected to have the largest growth rate of Alzheimer’s, next to Alaska.”

Fitzpatrick said this statistic is slightly skewed because of Arizona’s winter visitor population, but said the disease still poses a threat for those it affects.

One of the largest issues in dealing with Alzheimer’s comes as a result of faulty diagnoses, Fitzpatrick said. 

“Less than 50 percent of the people with the disease get the diagnosis,” he said.

David Brafman, assistant professor at ASU’s School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, is researching the mechanisms that cause Alzheimer’s. His research in finding causality is geared to provide future medical professionals the necessary knowledge to combat the disease more effectively.

"We're proposing to develop the tool to examine this disease," Brafman said. "Long term, we're looking to use these tools to combat the disease."

Ultimately, researchers are hoping to reach the point where they can develop drugs to counteract Alzheimer's, Brafman said. 

In understanding the mechanisms behind Alzheimer's, Brafman found a correlation in the blood stream.

His research proposes that doctors can take blood samples of Alzheimer's patients, revert them to stem cells, and then introduce them to neurons in a dish. Through this process, he hopes to chronologically see how Alzheimer's grows in the brain.

While many of the new researchers are investigating diseases and other issues which directly affect one’s health, one researcher is examining the economic issues within the health care industry.

Ellen Green is an assistant professor at ASU’s School for the Science of Health Care Delivery and she examines ways behavioral economics affect physicians and other medical practitioners.

Health care can be a costly industry, and sometimes medical professionals don’t have appropriate resources to deal with a given issue.

“They know what to do, but they couldn’t do it,” Green said.

Green said traditional economic mindsets dictate that a physician’s care should suffer in quality when they are not being paid as well as they could be.

“As an economist, you tend to assume people are self-interested,” Green said. “Physicians care a great deal about other people.”

Through conducting her research, Green found many physicians care for their patients, regardless of how much payment is involved.

“Classic economic theory doesn’t necessarily work in a field like health care,” she said. 

The entire partnership is designed to better the health care industry, both for those working in it, and those in need of its services.

Panchanathan said the partnership enables ASU to come alongside Mayo and help their research grow to even higher levels.

“We are providing a spark,” he said. “We are working to take this spark to fruition.”

Related Links:

ASU to collaborate with Banner Health on Alzheimer's, brain research

ASU acquires land, plans to move near Mayo Clinic


Reach the reporter at jwbowlin@asu.edu or follow @mrjoshuabowling on Twitter.

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