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USF Health Byrd Institute advances Alzheimer's research and care toward a promising future

Alzheimer's disease is a progressively debilitating neurological disorder that profoundly impairs cognitive functions, primarily memory, and reasoning abilities. If the disease progresses far enough, its victim will need to depend on others for even the most basic daily tasks.  

But new treatments rolled out over the last year may be changing the course of this disease, and that change is renewing hope in those who provide care to Alzheimer’s patients, including Amanda Smith, MD, professor and director of clinical research at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“It is an exciting time when we can make a meaningful change during these people's lives, and that is not something we have been able to do for a long time,” she said.

Dr. Smith is referencing the recent approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a new Alzheimer's treatment called Leqembi. Clinical trials have demonstrated that Leqembi effectively slows down cognitive decline. The drug has been shown to exhibit a remarkable 27% reduction in memory and thinking decline after an 18-month treatment period. Additionally, the drug has shown promising results in significantly reducing the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer's, in the brain. 

“I have people who were among the very first in the country to start with Leqembi, which was the first monoclonal antibody that came on the market last year and disease progression in those people seem stable,” Dr. Smith said. “When I see them at visits 15 to 18 months later after starting the medicine, there is not any change in their cognitive testing. That is what we are striving for until we can get something that completely gets Alzheimer's out of the brain and reverses any damage that's been done. That is the best place we have ever been in terms of having to deal with this disease.” 

Leqembi, is expected to receive widespread coverage under the federal Medicare health insurance program, primarily serving individuals aged 65 and older. Consequently, more individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease will gain access to this treatment option, ensuring affordability and improved prospects for those affected by the condition. 

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From left, the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute and patient participating in a PET scan.

The USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute stands as a prominent Alzheimer's disease research center. Opened in 2002, it is the realization of a visionary concept championed by former Florida Speaker of the House Johnnie B. Byrd, Jr., who was deeply moved by his father's battle with the disease.  
Presently, the Institute thrives as a multidisciplinary hub within the University of South Florida as part of the USF Health Neurosciences Institute, and holds the distinction of being the world's largest standalone diagnostic facility offering
comprehensive memory care services under one roof. It has also garnered national recognition for its groundbreaking work.

Caregiver education

The Institute also involves loved ones in the care process by providing education, support, and resources to caregivers. Eileen Poiley, the director of education at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Center, has played a vital role in offering caregiver support through workshops, support groups, and a podcast series. 

“Some caregivers are at the end of their ropes, and they don’t know what to do,” Poiley said. “We help caregivers deal with the challenges from a non-medication perspective, as there are a lot of behaviors that medication can’t change.” 

Community outreach

Recognizing the need to extend their reach, the Byrd Center launched the Byrd Mobile unit. This initiative was born out of the desire to engage with communities directly, making clinical trial participation more accessible and striving to increase research participation from underrepresented groups who often face barriers to access. 

  • Exterior of the Byrd Mobile Unit

  • Reception area in the Byrd Mobile Unit.

  • Testing area in the Byrd Mobile Unit.

"We aim to bring research to people where they live, providing them with ease of participation,” Dr. Smith said. “We want individuals to feel they have a partner in us, as someone they can reach out to any time for information and answers. Often those groups have a harder time coming to see us so our goal with the mobile unit is to go out in the community and bring research to people in the places where they live and make it easier for them to participate.”

Improved testing

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain and has long been a focus of research at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Center.  

The institute achieved a significant breakthrough by developing the ability to image amyloid plaques using PET scans while individuals were still alive. This innovative approach has also enabled the identification of amyloid plaque in individuals who did not yet display memory problems, which opened the door to preventive care for patients suffering from the disease.  

“We've been able to identify amyloid plaque in the brains of people who are alive, which is something we have not been able to do in the past,” Dr. Smith said. “Furthermore, we've been able to identify people who have amyloid plaque who do not yet even have memory problems. So not only have we improved the ability to identify people who are at risk, we have also been helping develop drugs that target and remove the plaque.” 

PET scan

Technician analyzing data from PET scan.

In a world where Alzheimer's disease poses significant challenges, the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute stands as a beacon of hope, tirelessly striving to change the course of this devastating illness. 

“There are now two and, hopefully later this year, a third drug that uses the immune system to remove plaque and significantly slow the progression of symptoms,” Dr Smith said. 

“We hope to have a generation of people who never develop cognitive issues from Alzheimer's while at the same time not abandoning the people who already have dementia and continue to work on new treatments for them as well to help them slow down the progression of their disease or ideally reverse symptoms if and when possible.” 

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About Health News

USF Health News highlights the great work of the faculty, staff and students across the four health colleges – Morsani College of Medicine, College of Public Health, College of Nursing and Taneja College of Pharmacy – and the multispecialty physicians group. USF Health, an integral part of the University of South Florida, integrates research, education and health care to reach our shared value - making life better.