WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A Triad health scientist is making progress in the race to cure one of the deadliest diseases in America.

What You Need To Know

  • A Triad doctor is accepting new study participants for an upcoming clinical trial

  • Study has shown presence of destructive cells in the brain that could be a cause for Alzheimer's

  • New treatments are being developed based on the discovery of destructive brain cells

Over 7.1 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and every three seconds a new case is developed. The numbers are only expected to increase by 2050. 

Dr. Miranda Orr, a research scientist with the Salisbury VA Health Care System and assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, is spearheading some of the nation’s top research in the fight to cure Alzheimer’s disease, and she’s looking for participants for her upcoming clinical trial. 

“We’re discovering new things every day. I mean, what could be better?” Orr said with a smile.

For nearly 20 years, Orr has been dedicated to curing the disease that took the life of her grandmother.

Growing up in the small town of Saco, Montana, Orr decided becoming a scientist to help others outweighed her expectations of being a farmer. 

“One day, I was plowing the fields with my mom and she just said to me, ‘Make sure you work with your brain and not your back,’” Orr said.

Her research has gained national attention for its implications of new treatment options and bringing the vision of a world cured of Alzheimer’s closer. 

Orr and her team are looking more closely at the process of cellular aging in order to understand and treat Alzheimer’s. They believe that by studying why people are more prone to developing Alzheimer’s as they age, her team can help treat it. 

A pivotal moment in Orr’s research was in 2018 when she discovered a destructive cell called a senescent cell in the brain. Over four years, Orr has tested and proven her theory that the presence of these senescent cells within the brain greatly contributes to Alzheimer’s and that by targeting them, they may be able to treat and alter the process of the disease. 

“This cell actually changes. It changes its shape, it changes its metabolism, it … releases a bunch of substances from inside of it and all of these molecules, with time, become toxic to the neighboring cells,” she said. “So that very stressed cell gets to survive, but it kills all of its neighbors and so we are looking at whether or not that is what's happening in the brain of Alzheimer's disease.”

After examining 76 brains and almost 200,000 individual brain cells, they concluded that 2% of all cells responsible for learning and memory were senescent, with development in individuals as early as 20 years old. While these cells contribute to different degenerative dysfunctions in the body, she says just knowing they’re present is a step in the right direction toward treating the diseases that affect millions of Americans and take the lives of thousands every year.

“We think if we kill that cell, it’ll allow all of the healthy cells around it to remain alive,” she said. 

Orr is planning to take the theory that these cells also contribute to Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) to trial after the current trial is complete.

Anyone interested in additional information or becoming a participant can contact Orr’s team directly by calling 336-713-6463. 

With the success of her research, Orr is helping give hope to others who, like her, felt helpless.