$5 million gift to UAB will support Alzheimer’s disease research

The gift will advance the use of induced pluripotent stem cells as a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s disease.
Written by: Rachel Burchfield
Media contact: Bob Shepard

JohnsonJim and Sallie JohnsonA $5 million gift from James and Sallie Johnson to the University of Alabama at Birmingham will support Alzheimer’s disease research in the Department of Neurology and the UAB Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics.

The James Milton and Sallie R. Johnson Fund to Support Alzheimer’s Disease Research will broadly support Alzheimer’s research, specifically through a human cell modeling initiative using a new technology called induced pluripotent stem cells. This technology has the potential to significantly advance Alzheimer’s research, allowing new therapies to be developed with the goal of eventually developing a treatment for the disease.

The decision to make the gift was a personal one for the Johnsons. Jim Johnson’s grandmother, mother and sister have all suffered from the disease, and he is familiar with the toll the disease takes not just on the person diagnosed but on the entire family.

“Research like this needs to happen, and UAB needs to be a leader in this research,” Johnson said. “Lots of people have a relative who has Alzheimer’s. I maintain that it’s not fully recognized how traumatic it is. Current treatment is a hopeless continuation of decline for the patient and their family.”

“It’s going to be transformative for Alzheimer’s and UAB, and it will be happening in the place where we live,” Sallie Johnson added. 

The Johnsons’ gift will commit UAB to make a key hire in the form of an iPSC researcher and establish a fully functional and staffed lab to develop the technology for Alzheimer’s research as soon as next summer. 

“We are deeply grateful to the Johnsons for their generous gift that will dramatically accelerate our research on Alzheimer’s and other devastating neurodegenerative diseases,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “With this new technology and a dedicated lab around it — right here in Birmingham — UAB will pursue promising new therapies to transform and save lives of patients around Alabama, the nation and the world.”

Advances in Alzheimer’s disease research

Alzheimer’s disease in 2022 affects more than 6.5 million people in the United States, and is projected to affect more than 20 million more people over the next 20 years, says David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., John N. Whitaker Endowed Professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine.

“Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible condition, and we don’t have an effective treatment today,” he said. “Largely because people are living longer — the average age of onset for Alzheimer’s is late 60s to early 70s — we see more and more cases. There’s an urgent need to do something better for those affected by this.”

After meeting with Standaert and Erik Roberson, M.D., Ph.D., Rebecca Gale Endowed Professor and director of the UAB Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics, the Johnsons learned they could make the most significant impact by bringing the iPSC technology to UAB to study neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. 

“This gift allows us to bring a really important technology to UAB,” Standaert said. “It’s an amazing technology. For a long time, we thought cell development was a one-way path, and once the cell developed, there was no going back. The discovery of how to make iPSCs changed all of that and earned a Nobel Prize in 2012. Now, you can take a cell, like a piece of skin, grow a skin cell in a dish, and turn back the clock and turn it into a stem cell. It can then become any type of cell, so if we’re studying Alzheimer’s, we can induce it to become a brain cell in a dish. 

UAB has been building its capacity in Alzheimer’s research, having been named an exploratory center for Alzheimer’s research by the National Institutes of Health two years ago — the first step in being designated as a federal Alzheimer’s disease center.

Jim Johnson says his and Sallie’s gift will create new tools to contribute to the treatment and eventual cure of Alzheimer’s.

“We must be successful,” he said. “And we want it to happen at UAB.”