MENTAL BREAKTHROUGH

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Kit Noble

Summer resident Phyllis Rappaport’s quest to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Last June, a longtime Nantucket resident went missing from her home in ‘Sconset. The sixty-year-old suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and was last seen walking up Milestone Road on the evening of Saturday, June 13th. After her husband reported her missing, a massive search effort was launched by local and state police, the Coast Guard, and over a hundred Nantucket volunteers. Despite their efforts, she was never found, and while the circumstances around her disappearance remain a mystery, most agree that Alzheimer’s was ultimately to blame.

“It’s a brutal disease — it terrifies people,” says Phyllis Rappaport sitting in her summer home in ‘Sconset. “It’s almost back in the dark ages where cancer was. People are afraid of it. Nobody wants to get too close.” Phyllis’s husband Jerry lost his mother to the disease in 1986, and today the couple is helping lead the charge toward finding a cure. In 2007, Phyllis Rappaport helped found the Cure Alziemer’s Fund, which is today widely considered the preeminent authority in Alzheimer’s research.

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 3.57.49 PMDr. Rudolph Tanzi chairs the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Research Consortium. Named one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine this spring, Tanzi is often described as a “rock star scientist,” due to his groundbreaking research and for pounding on the keys behind Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. “Rudy Tanzi was this young, dynamic man who had found three of the four genes of Alzheimer’s,” Phyllis Rappaport remembers of first meeting Dr. Tanzi in 2003, during her tenure on the President’s Council at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The whole genome study had just been completed and he was poised to really explode his research, but he didn’t have a lot of money.”

Since gaining the support of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, Dr. Tanzi has made game-changing strides. Most recently, he successfully created what’s been described as “Alzheimer’s in a dish,” a petri-dish of human brain cells that can develop the signs of Alzheimer’s, thus allowing researchers to more effectively test drugs to combat the disease. At present, Dr. Tanzi is testing a total of 6,200 drugs that are both on the market and experimental.

While a cure has not yet been discovered, Dr. Tanzi’s research is helping bring about greater Alzheimer’s awareness. “We now understand so much more about the disease,” says Rappaport. “It gets started maybe twenty years before a person has it. It can be started by traumatic brain injury.” According to Dr. Tanzi, Alzheimer’s affects 5.3 million Americans. As the baby boomers get older, those numbers are expected to skyrocket, putting an unprecedented burden on our healthcare system. “It’s the most expensive disease. I don’t think people realize that,” says Rappaport. “[It costs] something like $200 billion in Medicare and Medicaid.” That number is forecasted to climb to $1 trillion in the decades to come.

Along with proliferating new information, Dr. Tanzi and the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund are debunking unfounded cures to the disease like consuming coconut oil, cayenne pepper, low-carb diets, or, most recently, marijuana. “[T]he public needs to understand — and researchers need to better explain — that we will beat Alzheimer’s only with its full-throated support of fact-based science,” wrote Dr. Tanzi in The Wall Street Journal article he co-authored with David Shenk.

On August 17th, the Nantucket community will have the opportunity to understand this science more clearly when Dr. Tanzi speaks at the Great Harbor Yacht Club as part of the Atheneum’s Geschke Lecture Series. “Not only is he a scientist in the field he knows, but he’s made it his business to understand all aspects of other diseases and biology, and he explains it so well,” says Rappaport who was instrumental in bringing the doctor to Nantucket. “I think people will leave with a sense of hope and a sense of excitement about what’s being done around what’s probably the disease of our time.”

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