The program was announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association, which is working with the National Institute on Aging to create a gene bank with samples from more than 1,000 families affected by late-onset Alzheimer's. Most of the 4 million Americans with Alzheimer's have that form of the disease, which typically is diagnosed after age 60.
While three genes have been linked to earlier-onset disease, researchers are less certain about the genetic causes of late-onset Alzheimer's.
"By getting large samples like this we should be able to start zeroing in on these genes," said Creighton Phelps, director of the NIA's Alzheimer's Disease Centers network. The network comprises 29 centers nationwide that will help collect blood samples for the gene bank.
The NIA is funding the initiative at a cost of about $2 million a year. It is expected to take about three years to identify patients and collect and analyze samples, Phelps said.
While development of treatments may be years away, the large gene bank will greatly accelerate research efforts to identify Alzheimer-linked genes, which are hampered by having too few participants to draw major conclusions, said William Thies, medical director of the Alzheimer's Association.
"It is such an important initiative and has so much potential," Thies said.
More than 100 families with more than two or three afflicted members already have been identified, Phelps said.
The research tactic of establishing gene banks has become increasingly popular. Howard University in May announced plans to establish a bank to study diseases whose incidence is high among African-Americans. There's also a gene bank for autism. And in the U.K., Biobank is in the infant stages of setting up a database with DNA and medical histories which could aid in studying illnesses including heart disease, cancer and Parkinson's.
The Alzheimer's Association is helping with promotional efforts for the new gene bank, which likely will include newspaper and magazine ads and mentions in newsletters published by the association's nationwide chapters.
Participating families and afflicted members will have a single simple blood test and interview, which could be done by their own doctors in coordination with local Alzheimer Association chapters.
Samples will be sent to an NIA repository at the Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis, where the research will be conducted.
Interested families should contact local association chapters or check NIA and association Web sites at http://www.nia.nih.gov or http://www.alz.org. Information also is available at the Indiana University repository at 1-800-526-2839.