Andrew Teich, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology, Columbia University, New York, recipient of a 2011 New Investigator Research Grant.
Dr. Andrew Teich confronts the problems of Alzheimer’s disease from many angles, spearheading key research on the role of beta-amyloid in the brain and serving as an Alzheimer’s Association Ambassador in New York City.
The protein fragment beta-amyloid has long been a key suspect in Alzheimer’s disease. In the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, beta-amyloid tends to accumulate into clumps that hinder the ability of brain cells to communicate with one another. These clumps may damage the synapses, specialized structures through which brain cells communicate. For many years, a focus of Alzheimer’s research has been to find ways of reducing beta-amyloid levels in the brain. Yet anti-amyloid drugs have not achieved success in clinical trials. According to Dr. Andrew Teich, a major problem with traditional amyloid research is that it pays insufficient attention to the normal role of beta-amyloid in the brain. Beta-amyloid is present in our brains throughout life, and it occurs in different forms. Recent studies indicate that when beta-amyloid is at normal concentrations in the brain, it can be beneficial. Dr. Teich and his colleagues are working to understand exactly what those benefits are.
Impact of Association funding
Dr. Teich credits his Alzheimer’s Association grant as “critical for helping me get my lab up and running,” especially at a time when many companies and organizations were slashing their research budgets. He also praises the Association’s professional society, the International Society to Advance Alzheimer's Research and Treatment (ISTAART). ISTAART helps scientists communicate with one another efficiently, promoting a healthy exchange of ideas. “Whenever I have a question about a particular lab reagent that is relevant for Alzheimer's disease research,” he states, “a Google search usually lists a chat thread linked to ISTAART that gives me the answer.” Dr. Teich’s penchant for communicating with others also finds an outlet in his work as an Alzheimer’s Ambassador.
Dr. Teich affirms that his career “at this point would not be possible without the Alzheimer’s Association” — a career that “puts a spring in my step” and enables him to “make a high impact on society while doing something that I love.”
The benefits of beta-amyloid
Work by one of Dr. Teich’s collaborators suggests that at normal concentrations, beta-amyloid may actually help synapses function. Thus, beta-amyloid appears to have a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” relationship with the brain’s synapses: harmful when at elevated levels and beneficial when at normal levels. Although this relationship is somewhat surprising at first glance, it makes sense considering how elevated levels of beta-amyloid damage the brain, says Dr. Teich. When beta-amyloid accumulates abnormally, the synapses are most susceptible to damage because they are the areas most sensitive to beta-amyloid’s positive effects. An analogy would be the effect of loud noise on the eardrum. The eardrum interacts with sound in a beneficial way, guiding people throughout their everyday activities. However, when sound reaches very high levels, it’s the eardrum that gets damaged.
Dr. Teich and his colleagues are making substantial progress in identifying the mechanisms that explain how normal levels of beta-amyloid promote synapse formation and communication in people without Alzheimer’s disease. Their study could shed new light on how beta-amyloid functions in the brain, and it might point to mechanisms responsible for the overproduction of beta-amyloid in Alzheimer’s. Such work is necessary to develop amyloid-related therapies that are both effective and, as Dr. Teich says, “do no harm” — or do not hinder the ability of beta-amyloid to carry out its helpful functions.
An ambassador in the Big Apple
In 2012, Dr. Teich accepted an invitation from the Alzheimer’s Association to become an Alzheimer’s Ambassador in New York City. The Association relies on its Ambassadors to serve as key contacts to members of Congress, meeting regularly with congresspeople and their staffs to discuss Alzheimer’s-related legislative priorities. Though trained as a researcher, Dr. Teich says he began thinking about advocacy when he attended a “meet the researchers” event sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association. “The goal was to get scientists in the NYC community to meet members of the lay public and talk about Alzheimer's disease,” says Dr. Teich. Through this event, he made contacts with members of the Association’s New York City chapter, who inspired him to use his knowledge of Alzheimer’s research outside the laboratory. “I have many ideas about how we can move the field forward,” he says. “However, my ideas are only effective if there is a public commitment to providing the resources necessary to implement these ideas.”
Like other Ambassadors, Dr. Teich’s experience as a scientist enables him to communicate to policy makers with authority, specificity and passion. He believes Congress needs to understand the true value of Alzheimer’s research and the strong support that such research has among the American people. He also advocates for greater care and support services for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their families. During his first few months as an Alzheimer’s Ambassador, he met with New York Congressman Charles Rangel, and he is planning meetings with Congressman Jerrold Nadler. According to Dr. Teich, the meeting with Congressman Rangel proved “very productive” in conveying the urgent need for boosting government’s role in Alzheimer’s research and care.
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