A personal journey: UTMB’s neurodegenerative research attracts world-renowned journalist

May 17, 2016, 10:10 AM by KirstiAnn Clifford
Rakez Kayed, PhD, (left) does an interview with journalist Stone Phillips about cutting-edge neurodegenerative research being done at UTMB.
A five-person crew carrying loads of camera and lighting equipment headed up to the lab of Rakez Kayed, PhD, on the 10th floor of the Medical Research Building on UTMB’s Galveston Campus.

Leading the way was well-known national reporter and correspondent, Stone Phillips. You may know him from his tenure on “Dateline NBC” or “20/20.” These days, he’s working independently on a documentary that is personal for him.

“I’m the son of a mother with Alzheimer’s,” said Phillips, who grew up in Texas City before moving to St. Louis when he was 10. “At 93 years old, she’s in the advanced stages and it’s progressing, so I’ve been dealing with that just like so many families in this country are. I’m also a former football player—I played through college and had a couple of concussions, so I’ve been tracking the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) story regarding sports and concussions and repetitive traumatic brain injury. And it really led me to start exploring where the basic science, or bench science, on neurodegenerative disease stands.”

After reading numerous studies and scholarly publications, he noticed Kayed’s name come up again and again. And in talking to experts around the country—in California, New York, Massachusetts and Michigan—Kayed’s name was mentioned multiple times.

In mid-April, Phillips and his camera crew, which included his son, Streeter, spent three days in Galveston, interviewing Kayed, associate professor of Neurology, and Julia Gerson, who just received her PhD.
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Their conversation centered around the link between traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Recent findings by Kayed and his team show that a toxic form of tau protein is associated with TBI and maybe responsible for the increased risk for neurodegenerative disease and spread of impairments throughout the brain following TBI. Gerson has played a large role in the lab on a project laying the groundwork for personalized medicine against toxic tau in numerous diseases.

Brain cells depend on tau protein to form highways for the cell to receive nutrients and get rid of waste. In some neurodegenerative diseases, the tau protein changes into a toxic form. When this happens, molecular nutrients can no longer move to where they are needed and the brain cells eventually die.

Because this form of tau plays an important role in the toxicity underlying TBI, it could be a viable therapeutic target. Working with mice, Kayed’s lab has developed antibodies that cannot only stop the disease, but also reverse mental deficits. The next step is to test it in clinical trials, which Kayed hopes to do in the next three to five years.

“This is breakthrough science,” said Phillips. “Tau has become the ‘it’ protein with regard to neurodegenerative disease, and Dr. Kayed has played an important role in that. He’s very passionate about what he has accomplished so far and clear he won’t put it down until he gets the answers that he wants. It’s new territory.”

Kayed, who has been working on this for eight years, said he’s honored to take part in the documentary and credits the Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and UTMB administration with providing support since day one.

“This was a risky project, but we took the risk and it paid off for everybody,” said Kayed. “There are hundreds upon hundreds of labs working on this. For us to be selected and recognized is really a great honor. It’s good for UTMB, the students, postdocs, everybody. And it’s satisfying to see that other researchers in the field acknowledge that this is important. We were ahead of the field by a few years and now everyone is moving toward working on toxic tau. We are in science to find a cure. The more people involved, the better.”

Phillips said his documentary is in the beginning stages, but he hopes to find a good outlet for it once it’s finished. He added that it was great to be back in Galveston. One of his mother’s favorite pastimes was packing him and his siblings into the car and driving down to the beach.

“It’s been poignant being here, standing on the beach where I used to come with her and realizing that she wouldn’t be able to remember that even if she were here—and that’s sad to me,”said Phillips. “She doesn’t even remember me, but that’s part of my motivation for this—and part of my gratitude to the neuroscientists who are pursuing this so rigorously.”