UCSF to Study Alzheimer’s Genetics in North American Asians

International collaboration will expand research and improve health equity in Alzheimer’s care for Asians.

By Victoria Colliver

An elderly Asian woman stares wistfully out of a window.

UC San Francisco is helping to create the first large group of Asian American study participants to help improve Alzheimer’s disease care for the Asian community in the U.S and Canada, a population that is significantly underrepresented in Alzheimer’s disease research.

National datasets and clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease research have few people of Asian ancestry — generally less than 3%, and as low as 0.5%. This makes it difficult to know whether Alzheimer’s research findings can be broadly applied to this group.

The National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is providing $40.6 million to 16 U.S. and Canadian academic medical centers to create an Asian Cohort for Alzheimer’s Disease (ACAD) at their institutions. UCSF is receiving about $6.44 million of the funds.

“Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial population, but we in the U.S. are not prepared to provide culturally appropriate care for Asian Americans living with these conditions,” said Van Ta Park, PhD, MPH, of UCSF School of Nursing, and one of the principal investigators for the project. “A major reason for this is the limited knowledge that we have about how genetics and lifestyle risk factors for Alzheimer’s affect Asians in the U.S. and Canada.”

Tailoring care and treatment

The research, led by Penn Medicine, is expected to increase the understanding around the disease and help develop more tailored care and treatments.

“In addition to enhancing the field’s understanding of genetic risk in these historically understudied populations, our study has the potential to identify non-genetic risk factors that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease risk and cognitive decline in aging,” Boon Lead Tee, MD, assistant professor of neurology at UCSF, who is also an investigator with the study.

Over the next five years, researchers hope to recruit at least 5,000 adults aged 60 and older, with or without cognitive issues, of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese ancestry. As of June 2023, more than 1,800 people have expressed interest in joining the study and more than 700 have consented to enroll.

Developing a genetic risk score

The participants will be asked to complete a lifestyle and demographic questionnaire, undergo a cognitive assessment, and provide saliva and optional blood samples.

Researchers will analyze the genetic data from the samples to identify risk variants in the group and compare them to other populations in North America, as well as to those living in Asia. Based on these analyses, researchers aim to develop blood biomarker benchmarks and a genetic risk score for Alzheimer’s disease among Asian Americans and Asian Canadians.

Non-genetic biomarkers in combination with lifestyle and clinical information will be examined for clues to other contributing factors to Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers plan to follow up on the participants’ health as they age, to gauge the progression of the disease.

Additional UCSF investigators in the study include Jennifer Yokoyama, PhD, associate professor of Neurology, and Yoonmee Joo, PhD, ANP, RN, associate professor in the School of Nursing. Marian Tzuang, PhD, MSW is the research project manager in the School of Nursing.

Other participating institutions include the University of British Columbia; UC San Diego; UC Irvine; Columbia University; Englewood Health in New Jersey; Indiana University, New York University; Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; Stanford University, Southern California Eye Institute; University of Toronto; University of Washington, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Funding: The project is supported by NIA (R56AG069130 and U19AG079774). Visit acadstudy.org to learn more.