Research: Using genetic predictors to find Alzheimer’s risk

Dr. Kacie Deters, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University, was a recipient of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Fellowship for Diversity in 2018. Her research focuses on genetic predictors of Alzheimer’s disease and how they differ between those who self-identify as White or Black.

Pursuing a career in science
As a woman of both Black and White ancestry who primarily identifies as Black, Dr. Deters has always wondered what her risk was of getting certain diseases. Is she at a higher risk for a disease because she is part White or part Black?

Information on APOE4

Dr. Deters asked herself, “If I have one of the risk factors for a disease, is it as bad for me as someone who may identify as just one of those races?” It was this question that drove her to ultimately pursue a PhD and her career in genetic ancestry research.

Risk gene differences
There is currently a lot of research around the APOE4 gene and how it relates to Alzheimer’s. As it stands, APOE4 is a recognized Alzheimer’s risk gene, but what if it’s only a risk gene for those who are White?

Dr. Deters has spent the last two years looking at APOE4 as well as another gene, TOMM40, to see how having these genes may affect Alzheimer’s risk differently for Whites and Blacks. Using data provide by Rush University, Dr. Deters’ work suggests that having the APOE4 gene may not be as great of a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease in non-white races.

TOMM40 gene may impact cognition
One of the genes Dr. Deters is focusing on is the TOMM40 gene. While APOE4 and TOMM40 may be linked, she hopes to show that there is a disassociation between the APOE4 gene and TOMM40, specifically in Black vs. White races. Variations in these genes may contribute to greater risk or protection of cognitive decline among Blacks.

Impact of genetic predictors
Dr. Deters’ research has found that people who self-identify as White typically have 80% or higher European genetic ancestry, whereas people who self-identify as Black usually have 30-90% African genetic ancestry. Looking at the percentage of African ancestry a person has, Dr. Deters is trying to figure out how specific genetic predictors impact Alzheimer’s disease in different groups.

Importance of research
Most clinical studies are done by people who self-identify as White, and as research has shown, the risk factors are different for Whites and Blacks. Dr. Deters encourages people of all races and ethnicities to participate in clinical trials. This will make it more likely that effective treatments can be found for all racial/ethnic groups.

Goal of research
The ultimate goal of Dr. Deters’ research is to create a risk score of how likely a person is to get Alzheimer’s. The score would not only include genetic factors but also lifestyle and race in order to have the best individualized prediction for each person.

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