BYU Alzheimer’s lab raises awareness on the disease’s widespread reach

Jaren Wilkey/BYU
John Kauwe, back right, and Meganne Ferrel, first row third from left, work in the lab on a daily basis. Approximately 20 people work in the Kauwe lab including undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

BYU biology professor John Kauwe studied the genetics of trout as a molecular biology student at BYU in 1996. Now, two decades later, he is leading a lab of 20 people on BYU campus in nearly 40 research projects focused on Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Deaths by Alzheimer’s have increased by 89 percent since the year 2000, killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Yet the amount of government funding allocated to research on Alzheimer’s has remained stagnate. Approximately $500 million in funding per year has been spent on Alzheimer’s research over the last several years, which averages out to only $100 per person living with Alzheimer’s.

“The United States have been kind of slow to react to this problem,” Kauwe said. “The number of Alzheimer’s patients is expected to double in the next decade. Our healthcare system is not prepared to deal with that. As we build awareness, it allows us to be more effective in lobbying for resources to solve this disease.”

Kauwe said he is doing what he can to make up for the worldwide lack of information regarding the neurodegenerative disorder. He takes his knowledge of genetics and works towards benefiting humans in a positive manner by studying Alzheimer’s. It’s his focus “all day, every day” as he works with a group of BYU students and faculty members in his lab on a daily basis.

“Generally speaking we’re trying to solve the genetic architecture of Alzheimer’s disease with the goal of identifying novel therapeutic targets,” Kauwe said. “We are studying every aspect of the fundamentals of the disease so that we can create the right base of knowledge for a solution.”

Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
BYU senior Meganne Ferrel works with samples in John Kauwe’s Alzheimer’s lab. The lab is currently working on nearly 40 research projects. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

BYU senior Meganne Ferrel has worked in Kauwe’s lab since her freshman year at BYU. Her personal connection to Alzheimer’s motivates her work and research with the disease.

“I really love studying Alzheimer’s because it runs really strong in my family,” Ferrel said. “My grandma has Alzheimer’s. She’s just going to get worse and worse. I can see the change [the disease] is making in her.”

A part of raising Alzheimer’s awareness is understanding the myths and misconceptions surrounding the disease. There is a lot of misinformation about the disease — from the confusion between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which is actually a symptom caused by Alzheimer’s, to the belief that memory loss is a normal part of aging.

“If you don’t live around people with Alzheimer’s you might think Alzheimer’s does not happen to a lot of people,” Ferrel said. “But everyone knows somebody that has Alzheimer’s, so it affects a lot more people than you might think.”

The BYU Alzheimer’s Research Lab is forging ahead with new research and studies despite the lack of awareness concerning the disease. Kauwe estimates there are at least three dozen projects currently in progress.

Ferrel credits lab experience like this for helping her to find a more personal mission in her life.

“This is the way that I am able to contribute,” Ferrel said. “It feels very fulfilling that I’ve found something that means a lot to me for personal reasons, but it’s something that can be used to bless other people as well.”

Kauwe shares Ferrel’s sentiment and is grateful for the opportunity to help students build a foundation in the field that he is so passionate about.

“At this stage of my life and career, to be at a place where I know I’m am making a difference in Alzheimer’s disease and to know that I have the chance to support my students in their professional training,” Kauwe said. “I’m grateful and excited and happy that I’m in that place and enjoying it.”

Through September 24, Chatbooks, a custom photo book printing company based in Provo, is donating one dollar per book purchase to the BYU Alzheimer’s Research Lab.

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