Professor of Neurology
What is the root cause of neurodegeneration? It’s one of humanity’s most puzzling questions. Yet, thanks to Dr. Marc Diamond and his team’s investigation of the Tau protein, we are getting ever closer to the answer. Searching for answers to difficult challenges has been a lifelong odyssey for Dr. Diamond. From early years spent meticulously breaking down and reassembling watches in his father’s garage to working alongside Nobel laureates whose discoveries inspired his Tau protein research, Dr. Diamond has forever been a patron of his own unwavering curiosity.
As Director of the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, Dr. Diamond is now spearheading an effort to fully understand why patients experience neurodegeneration, with the implication that effective treatments can then be developed. It’s a mission that began well before his tenure at UT Southwestern and continues today with the same passion that first drove him to pursue a career in neurology. His desire to solve some of humanity’s greatest problems has been effective both in making notable breakthroughs in the field of dementia research and in developing a lab full of like-minded researchers.
“They were basically choosing to stick together because of the feeling they were on to something pretty cool.”
One crucial element to Dr. Diamond’s success is the uniquely cohesive lab culture he has fostered over the years. Of his original team at Washington University in St. Louis, nine members made the move with him to UT Southwestern to continue their research on Tau.
Unlike many traditional labs, Dr. Diamond’s encourages researchers to pursue projects of their choosing, allowing creativity and self-discipline to flourish. In Dr. Diamond’s eyes, a lab that avoids strict autocratic procedures and promotes collaboration and creativity helps maintain a healthy environment in which noteworthy discoveries, like those with the Tau protein, naturally emanate.
“I don’t think about it in terms of equations or atoms. I think about it in reference to the physical world.”
Tau is a protein found in the brain that enables the transport of intercellular components. Sometimes a Tau protein can become defective, or toxic, and transform into an amyloid (a misfolded protein clump), or what Dr. Diamond calls a Tau aggregate, which eventually causes the cell it inhabits to dissolve and die.
The more this occurs throughout the brain, the more dementia is seen in the affected patient. Through exhaustive research, Dr. Diamond and his team have discovered that these Tau aggregates spread throughout the brain much like that of prions — defective proteins found in diseases like Mad Cow. However, unlike with prion diseases — which can be transmitted between mammals — the defective proteins present in dementia patients spread only between cells within a single organism.
By creating Tau aggregates in the lab and inoculating a generation of mice with the defective proteins, Dr. Diamond has discovered that each Tau aggregate spreads throughout the brain along different specified pathways, and that the journey it takes is determined solely by its unique protein structure. This means the type of dementia a patient will experience can be determined solely by the identification of unique Tau aggregate structures well before the patient experiences any noticeable symptoms. Because of this breakthrough, researchers around the country are racing to develop new drug treatments to target the growth and spread of specific protein structures, rather than dementia as a whole.
“I think it’s possible. I think we will get there. I really do.”
Dr. Diamond’s breakthrough has opened the door for a new wave of clinical drug trials aimed at combating and preventing the development and spread of specific Tau aggregates. One such trial is now in its second stage of testing and has already helped researchers better understand the means for developing effective neurodegenerative treatments.
As more breakthroughs loom ever nearer, Dr. Diamond and his team are confident their crucial addition to solving the puzzle of neurodegeneration has revealed the quickest path to developing effective treatments. As they continue along their journey on the trail of Tau, they ask that you consider contributing to their efforts to eradicate these devastating diseases.