Leadership Montgomery Participants Tour Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute as Part of April Program
The Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute is one of the County’s “hidden jewels.” At least, that was the sentiment expressed by a group of eight Leadership Montgomery participants – and the organization’s Executive Director – after a tour of the company, which is located on the Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus.
The tour was part of the organization’s April program, titled “Growing Up,” which focused on Business and Economic Development in Montgomery County.
During the tour, participants were treated to an inside look at BRNI’s work within the field of neuroscience. And based on feedback, they weren’t disappointed.
“Dr. Daniel Alkon and his staff are doing amazing research on memory and the diseases that affect it,” said Lynne M. Benzion, CEcD, Acting Executive Director, Rockville Economic Development, Inc.
BRNI currently is in the middle of clinical trials for a new, non-invasive skin test that would allow doctors to accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s. (BRNI also has developed an entire now-patented platform of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, TBI, and other neurologic disorders that involve loss of synapses in the brain.)
Early diagnosis has a number of significant benefits, explained Dr. Dan Alkon.
For one, he said that one out of three patients with dementia is actually misdiagnosed as having Alzheimer’s. In fact, in many cases the symptoms may be caused by a B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, alcoholism, depression, or other causes that would be treated differently.
In addition, early diagnosis means a patient can start taking medications that may help slow down the disease’s progression.
BRNI is on its second round of clinical trials with a more mature version of the skin test technology. The current round of clinical trials is taking place at several locations, including Johns Hopkins University and a site in Japan. Current trials include “autopsy validation” of the diagnosis, which Dr. Alkon explained is the only true way to determine its accuracy. However, the validation process adds to the length of the process.
If the test is found to be accurate, Dr. Alkon said it also will facilitate more drug development. Because there currently isn’t an accurate test other than post-mortem, clinical trials for new drugs can be challenging and often involve patients already in advanced stages of the disease, which isn’t the ideal patient population in some cases.
As to what the attendees found the most surprising during the BRNI visit?
“I never realized Alzheimer’s was a systemic disease that affects the whole body and not just the brain,” said Diann Dawson, Chief Financial Officer, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
In bringing the discussion back to the day’s theme – “Growing Up” – Dr. Alkon talked about the potential economic benefits that the County would see if this new diagnostic tool is successful.
“If clinicians ultimately adopt this technology, its use has the potential of creating hundreds of jobs in the area,” he explained. One job source would be staff for multiple service labs that could be located at the JHU campus or in other locations throughout the county.
Dr. Alkon said he participated in the day because he was eager to introduce his company to the Leadership Montgomery participants. He believed doing so could open up doors to potential collaborations, investors, and other sources of support. And he wasn’t disappointed. Follow up conversations have already begun along those lines.
“Our Leadership Montgomery group was quite diverse, including a freelance writer, a banker, an official with U.S. Health & Human Services, a Congressional staffer, and an economic developer,” said Benzion, one of the participants who is interested in exploring ways to work with and help Dr. Alkon and his team. “Drs. Alkon and [Dr. Florin] Chirila made the science understandable for us all. Plus, it was really fun to do an (elementary) experiment in the BRNI lab.”
While eight LM participants toured BRNI, others toured Human Genome Sciences; the NIH Chemical Genomics Center (NCGC), part of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS); Sanaria and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. After the tours, LM participants gathered back together to talk about their experiences.
“I found the BRNI tour stimulating and was inspired by the work going on in the institute,” Dawson added. “The Shady Grove Life Sciences Center is conducting cutting-edge work that could transform health care and treatment in this country. More people should be aware of this resource and how we as a community can ensure it receives all the support needed to continue developing medical breakthroughs.”