Seeking clues to Alzheimer's

Goldie Byrd focuses on African-Americans' genes and culture to solve a deadly mystery

CorrespondentApril 26, 2010 

  • Name: Dr. Goldie Byrd

    Job: Nathan F. Simms Endowed Professor of Biology at N.C. A&T

    Age: 54

    Interests/hobbies: Reading biographies and golf

    Family: Husband, Dr. J. Randall Byrd; children Jessica, Jennifer and Curtis

    What is important to you about being a scientist? "Creating new knowledge and sharing it with everyday people."

  • The condition was recognized and described as early as 1906. Today up to 5.3 million people live with Alzheimer's disease, and the numbers are on the rise. Currently the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., Alzheimer's, a progressive and eventually fatal disease, causes the deterioration and death of brain cells. Researchers don't know how to cure it or delay onset. Scientists are studying the role of a protein fragment known as beta-amyloid, suspected of damaging and killing a devastating portion of the brain's 100 billion nerve cells.

Goldie Byrd is a people person. After beginning her career studying the genetics of E. coli and microplasma, the biologist from Magnolia shifted gears to study human genetics, specifically in Alzheimer's, because it runs in her family.

Since the start of her Alzheimer's work in 2003, Byrd, now chair of the department of biological sciences at N.C. A&T State University, has focused on the African-American population. In the beginning, she studied the science; now she also looks at the social factors and perceptions about health studies in the African-American community.

"I have a vested interest in Alzheimer's; it certainly runs in my family. It's a disease I don't feel like is well studied or well understood in African-Americans," Byrd said.

Byrd's team participates in community activities, visits churches, meets with pastors, civic group heads and leaders both in and out of the North Carolina region to help the community understand what the team is trying to accomplish scientifically - gathering blood samples and conducting cognitive and neurological assessments to accumulatedata on the genes in a little-studied population.

This is particularly tough, she said, because African-Americans traditionally distrust scientific studies.

"Some groups may have had negative experiences in research studies and/or the health care system; there may be a general lack of trust which can influence participation and study outcomes," clinical associate professor Sara Corwin and assistant professor Daniela Friedman of the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina, who are not involved in the study, said in an e-mail.

Byrd's goal is to look at the entire genome to identify specific genes at play in African-American patients with Alzheimer's to understand why this population is more susceptible to the disease.

Little is known about how genetics play a part in the disease, especially as it relates to African-Americans, who are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's as Caucasians, she said.

Once she gathers the 2,000 participants needed for a genome-wide association study - she's now at the 1,500 mark - she and her collaborators will analyze blood samples in search of distinguishing genetic markers, comparing these across races. Additionally, the team will run brain scans on a subset of the study's population.

Byrd involves both undergraduates and graduate students in her community outreach and research, funded by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, N.C. A&T and the National Institute on Aging.

"If something comes out - if there's a genetic marker that is of significant interest - I'd like to see the process towards some sort of therapeutic. We'd certainly like to improve therapeutics and preventive medicine," Byrd said.

Since the idea was born from her Duke University collaborators, Byrd has worked and conceptualized how to go into the African-American community to gather data and build trust in the project. Byrd, also on staff at Duke as a research adjunct faculty member in the department of medicine, collaborates with the university for one of her Alzheimer's studies as well as for sickle cell disease work.

In searching for participants, Byrd has gathered survey data that show African-Americans are willing to participate in research studies out of a sense of civic duty. The team has found that educating the participants and being culturally sensitive, plus having a staff including African-Americans, have increased involvement and the success of the study.

"It is important to understand people's attitudes and beliefs about health and disease prevention so that we are able to tailor our health interventions and messages, which in turn can improve people's health," said Corwin and Friedman.

Byrd's team provides information to various groups, sharing literature and partnering with the Western Chapter of Alzheimer's Association in Greensboro to assist in workshops and activities, such as the upcoming Memory Walk on May 15. The team has gathered participants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and Washington in conjunction with collaborators at the University of Miami, Vanderbilt University and Columbia University.

"We've become a resource for the African-American community. They can call the department here and get some support, get some help with caregiving if they need it or with questions about medications. We try to be a presence in the community," Byrd said.

And she reaches out to more than her community: In 2009 Byrd received the UNC system's Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor awarded in North Carolina for teaching at a university level. Byrd mentors high school, undergraduate and graduate students who conduct research in her lab and directs two National Institutes of Health undergraduate summer research programs. For the summer programs, students are invited to participate in faculty research projects and learn about careers in science and internship opportunities as well as gain preparation, leadership and academic experience for science doctoral programs.

Byrd leads initiatives both in and out of the lab, but with an overarching goal to fight for science in underrepresented populations, the reason she left microbial genetic studies in the first place.

"African-Americans are much more burdened by the disease, and, relatively, there's so little research on the profile of this disease in African-Americans. What we know about it should not be generalized to any other population," Byrd said. "To generalize what we know about one population for another population is a very dangerous thing to do."

For more information, visit Cassie Rodenberg:

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