Utahn may be on verge of a significant breakthrough in treating Alzheimer's

Dr. Donna Cross, a professor at the University of Utah, poses for photos on April 23. Cross may be on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Donna Cross, a professor at the University of Utah, poses for photos on April 23. Cross may be on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Is a research professor at the University of Utah on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and other brain disorders?

Not only would a bunch of lab mice vote yes, they'd remember to do so.

Donna J. Cross, who has a doctoral degree in neuroscience, has spent the past 25 years shepherding research that favorably suggests a small, specialized dose of a chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel might be capable of repairing injuries, whether caused by pathology or by trauma, to the human brain.

The quest began at the University of Michigan, where Cross earned her doctorate, then to the University of Washington when she joined that faculty, and finally to the University of Utah, when Cross's mentor and the man who began the research, Dr. Satoshi Minoshima, came to the school as chairman of the department of radiology and imaging sciences.

In a nutshell, when the scientists have administered their version of the cancer drug to mice that have been bred to develop Alzheimer's, the mice have experienced "a complete reversal of their cognitive deficit." The same thing happened when mice that had suffered concussions were given the medication.

Suddenly, mice that couldn't remember things and/or had traumatic brain injury were acting cognitively normal again.

"Whether that would happen in humans, we have a lot of work still to do," says Cross. But if it did? She doesn't equivocate. "It would be huge."

This is personal for Cross. Like so many of us, she knows what it's like to watch loved ones suffer from brain diseases. Her grandmother's Alzheimer's diagnosis was her chief motivation for joining Minoshima's team when she started graduate school. Recently, a father-in-law with severe dementia has only heightened her sense of urgency.

"Even though it's too late for my grandmother and likely too late for my father-in-law, it's not too late for vast, vast numbers of people in the world," she says. "That's why we have to keep moving forward."

Still, scientific research takes time and money. With dwindling amounts of both when she came to the University of Utah (Alzheimer's research isn't her only iron in the fire), Cross confesses she was "almost ready to give up."

She desperately needed help in repurposing Paclitaxel into a form that could be applied to the human brain and didn't know where to turn.

Once she'd settled into her lab at the University of Utah, she did a Google search to see if any pharmaceutical scientists might be in the area.

That's when she discovered she'd been given an office, quite randomly, in the Biomedical Polymers Research Building, where the world-renowned Czech-born pharmaceutical chemist Jindrich (Henry) Kopecek has set up his headquarters.

The drugmakers she needed were literally right next door.

Kopecek and Dr. Jiyuan (Jane) Yang have been integrally involved ever since, lending their expertise in figuring out how to develop and safely deliver to the brain a potential game-changing drug.

"I'm just very, very lucky to be placed in their building for no other reason than they had space," says Cross. "These guys are rock stars. I came to them as a brain person who was interested in treating neurological conditions, and they are the drug developer/drug delivery people. It's a collaboration that is very strong because of our different areas of expertise."

The goal now is to get the drug developed and ready for clinical trials. It will be costly — Cross estimates they need to raise at least $2 million — but the potential upside could be priceless.

"We would treat not just Alzheimer's," she says, "but also any kind of dementia: ALS, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, any kind of condition where nerve cells are dying."

In a best-case scenario, not only would the neurological damage be halted, but the brain would conceivably be healed.

How long will it take to find out? As long as it takes, says Cross. "This is my passion. It started out personal to me; it still is, extremely so."

This week Cross will be giving a presentation about her work at the free Alzheimer's & Caregiving Education Conference scheduled to be held Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Embassy Suites Hotel in West Valley City. The conference, hosted by the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, is open to the public.

"My motivation for doing these public lectures is twofold: one, to draw attention to the work we're doing, and two, to give hope," says Cross. "I think it's extremely important that people have hope."

To register in advance for the conference, go to www.alzfdn.org/tour. You can stay connected with Cross' research by following @UofURadiology on the social media platform X.

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Lee Benson
    Lee Benson has written slice-of-life columns for the Deseret News since 1998. Prior to that he was a sports columnist. A native Utahn, he grew up in Sandy and lives in the mountains with his family.


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