Local resident searches for Alzheimer’s cure

Gil Rishton has created the Alzheimer’s Initiative to fund and research new drug components that could potentially treat and cure the brain-degenerating disease.

By Juliana Shallcross/ Special to The Malibu Times

When Malibu resident Gilbert Rishton left his job as a medicinal chemist with Amgen Pharmaceuticals last October to teach at California State University Channel Islands, he could have spent more time on his beloved surfboard or free diving off kelp beds. But instead, he had one thing on his mind: to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s a special kind of suffering that only human beings experience,” the Point Dume resident said. “And the fact that there is no medication out there to treat it at the mechanism [level] is an inspirational thing.”

At the same time, Rishton thought CSUCI, a relatively new school, was the perfect place to start, since the school was in need of a scientific program that went beyond just classes for students.

And, he added, CSUCI could be a way for local residents in Malibu to become involved in the search for a cure.

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Rishton has since created the Alzheimer’s Initiative, a nonprofit organization that studies new drug components that could potentially treat and cure Alzheimer’s.

With the death last summer of former President Ronald Reagan, Alzheimer’s disease is at the forefront of today’s health issues.

Currently, 14 million people worldwide are suffering from the brain-degenerating disease and by 2050 that number is expected to increase to 45 million, according to neurology experts and the Alzheimer’s Association, a national organization dedicated to helping families of Alzheimer’s patients. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities. There is no known single cause of Alzheimer’s.

“The interesting thing is there isn’t a genetic component so people rarely inherit it from their families,” Rishton said. “It just seems to occur sporadically and the occurrence is directly proportional to your age.”

Since the human life span is reaching close to 100, the numbers of Alzheimer’s patients will continue to increase, he added.

What Rishton and the Alzheimer’s Initiative want to do is identify new chemical entities that could stop neurodegeneration in the brain and keep healthy neurons firing efficiently, thus slowing, or stopping completely, the progression of Alzheimer’s.

While pharmaceutical giants like Merck, Pfizer and Novartis are engaging in drug research and development for Alzheimer’s, Rishton said smaller groups like the Alzheimer’s Initiative and academic groups are searching to find high-quality chemical leads for a new drug altogether.

The companies and other larger universities like the University of California Los Angeles can then take these new drugs and begin testing them in human clinical trials.

“Our job is to identify the new molecules, new chemical entities, and then communicate them to the larger Alzheimer’s research community,” Rishton said.

In searching for new drug leads, the Alzheimer’s Initiative is focusing on natural plant extracts and what Rishton calls “ethnobotanical” properties, or in other words, herbal remedies.

“These have been around for thousands of years and are used for treating things like dementia,” he said. “And to a certain extent, a drug derived from a natural source is appealing to people.”

But the main reason behind seeking an available natural source for a drug is that if it does prove promising, then the source can be easily obtained in large quantities.

“It’s not like you would have to go to the rain forest or to a coral reef and get a milligram of something very rare to work with,” Rishton said.

Rishton developed the idea for the Alzheimer’s Initiative last August while he was teaching part-time at CSUCI and still working at Amgen.

At Amgen, he managed drug discovery programs in inflammation, oncology and central nervous system diseases. Rishton was also featured in the recently published book, “The Amgen Story: 25 Years of Visionary Science and Powerful Medicine.”

But Rishton said he knew when he was studying chemistry in the 1980s in his home state of Rhode Island that he wanted to work with central nervous system diseases and Alzheimer’s. He’s also had a close family member struggle with Alzheimer’s for the past 10 years.

Seeing an opportunity to pursue this work, Rishton left Amgen to focus solely on creating the Alzheimer’s Initiative.

Rishton sought the help of Philip Hampton, a professor in CSUCI’s chemistry program, about the possibility of creating a nonprofit organization in conjunction with the CSUCI foundation that students could participate in.

“I was excited about the possibility of having our undergraduate students work on a project that involved drug-lead discovery from natural sources,” Hampton said of Rishton’s suggestion.

The two then worked together with the help of Professor Ching-Hua Wang, chair of the biology program, to draft a policy outlining the non-profit organization.

In January of this year, the group became a part of the university’s existing non-profit foundation, the CSUCI Foundation.

“One hundred percent of the contributed funds go directly to the Alzheimer’s Initiative and nothing is taken out for administrative or overhead costs,” Rishton said, calling that “rare” in an academic setting.

Just last month, the group was approved by the academic senate at CSUCI to be accepted as an official on-campus institute that will be finalized sometime in September 2005, Rishton said.

Once this is finalized, the group can use school money to hire scientists and researchers as employees of the university. The group will also take the official name of Channel Islands Alzheimer’s Institute.

Already, there are four researchers working with Rishton, and the group has use of the new chemistry and biology labs on campus. In addition, Rishton said the group would announce the Scientific Advisory Board this fall that will be comprised of three world-renowned Alzheimer’s researchers from both the pharmaceutical industry and the academic world.

The group has created a 60-second slideshow, which is airing on Malibu’s local network Channel 3. A 30-minute public service announcement is in the works and will air later this summer.

Aside from the public service announcements, the group has a fundraiser scheduled for the fall to take place in Malibu, but the details have not yet been confirmed, Rishton said.

Having moved to Malibu three years ago from Oxnard, Rishton noticed that many Malibu residents were not even aware of CSUCI.

He hopes his Alzheimer’s Initiative will make residents aware of the scientific research that is going on at a local university.

“This is the first time that drug discovery scientists are learning to treat the disease at its mechanism and trying to inhibit neurodegeneration, so it is actually a very exciting time to develop cures for Alzheimer’s disease,” Rishton said. “And it’s a worthy cause at a local university.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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