What are the links between Alzheimer’s disease, the immune system, and genetic risk factors?
To unravel the mystery, Dr. Tiffany Hensley-McBain has launched a research project at the McLaughlin Research Institute for Biomedical Sciences in her hometown of Great Falls. Her work has been funded with a prestigious $450,000 National Institutes of Health grant, awarded in September to expand her studies and lab.
“Dr. Hensley-McBain’s project is novel and innovative,” said Dr. Renee Reijo Pera, the institute’s president. “There’s a need to understand the role of the immune system in Alzheimer’s disease and the interaction of the immune system with genetic risk factors.”
Her project is entitled “Investigating neutrophilic inflammation as an APOE genotype-specific mediator of neuroinflammation and cognitive decline in aging.”
“I’m proud to bring this area of Alzheimer’s research to the institute and Montana,” said Dr. Hensley-McBain, 35, an assistant professor who opened her lab at the Institute in August 2021. “This is a milestone for my lab team and will help us springboard into bigger studies to find a way to treat Alzheimer’s disease by potentially targeting the immune system. This funding will also provide salary support for the hardworking people in my lab, who are talented Montana-trained scientists.”
A specific version of the APOE gene, APOE4, is the greatest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, increasing the risk 12-fold when a person has two copies of the gene, according to a recent press release.
As a result of the research, Dr. Hensley-McBain hopes to move into testing neutrophil-targeted therapies and will have a better idea of whether those therapies may work differently in people with different APOE genes.
“No studies have investigated this gene’s impact on neutrophil responses, despite a proposed role for neutrophils in Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “This project is translationally innovative and actionable because the information gained will inform the testing of new therapeutic approaches in Alzheimer’s disease mouse models and humans and determine if they should be tailored based on person’s APOE genotype.”
After earning a degree in cell biology and neuroscience from Montana State University in 2010, Hensley-McBain completed her PhD in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Washington in 2017. She then did postdoctoral work for labs in Washington and Florida before joining the faculty at the institute.
“I wasn’t sure if my experience would fit with McLaughlin’s focus on neurodegeneration, but after a discussion with Renee, we saw the opportunity to use my background in immunology to examine Alzheimer’s from a different perspective. It’s extremely rewarding to continue research in my lab while raising my family in Great Falls.”
Hensley-McBain is also spearheading HERO Registry for a Healthier Montana, a patient registry that allows the institute to enroll Montanans in potential clinical trials and research studies. Along with her colleague, Rebecca Brown, a registered nurse, she’ll use the registry to enroll individuals with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and age-related macular degeneration, as well as individuals with no chronic disease as studies may seek healthy control participants.
“Montana has the sixth oldest population in the nation, with 18.5 percent of our total population over the age of 65,” said Brown, the institute’s clinical research coordinator. “As the risk of developing neurodegenerative disease increases with age, expansion of science and medicine through clinical research that targets advancements in diagnoses, treatment, and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases is a priority concern to our state.” MSN