Allen Roses, the maverick Duke University scientist who broke new ground by establishing a genetic link to Alzheimer's disease, died of a heart attack Friday at the age of 73.
His contribution to Alzheimer’s research “cannot be valued highly enough,” said Wolfgang Liedtke, a neurology professor at Duke and a colleague of Roses’. “He made a pioneering observation that stands by itself.”
At the time of his death, Roses was the Jefferson-Pilot Corporate Professor of Neurobiology at Duke’s School of Medicine and owner and CEO of Zinfandel Pharmaceuticals, a small Chapel Hill pharmaceutical company that is working with Japan’s largest drug company, Takeda Pharmaceutical, to develop a medicine to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Roses “was a visionary and innovator in the fields of neurology, genetics and drug development,” the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement. “His work significantly advanced our knowledge and understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Earlier in his career, Roses was chief of neurology at Duke University Medical Center and for a decade was senior vice president for genetic research at what is now GlaxoSmithKline.
He made his first and biggest splash in the world of Alzheimer’s research in the early 1990s when he led a team at Duke that linked the APOE gene to Alzheimer’s. It was a controversial finding that many viewed with skepticism at first – which didn’t deter Roses one whit.
“He wasn’t shy about standing up to his critics,” said Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, director of the Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Duke. “He was fearless.”
In 2009, a group of scientists led by Roses identified a second gene, TOMM40, linked to Alzheimer’s. Roses had spent nearly $500,000 of his own money, funded with a home equity loan, on one of the experiments that led to that discovery.
Zinfandel and Takeda are in the midst of conducting a Phase 3 clinical trial involving thousands of patients worldwide that aims to confirm TOMM40’s ability to predict the onset of cognitive impairment from Alzheimer’s and demonstrate that Actos, a prescription drug for diabetes, can delay onset of the disease.
The findings of that trial could potentially become another seminal development in Alzheimer’s research, said Welsh-Bohmer.
Dan Burns, chief operating officer – and now interim CEO – at Zinfandel, said that although he and his colleagues are still numb from Roses’ death, the clinical trial will continue undeterred.
“Dr. Roses wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Burns said.
Roses, who received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, was enormously proud of growing up on the rough-and-tumble streets of Paterson, N.J., the son of Polish immigrants who had escaped from the Holocaust. Allen Roses’ father died when he was young and, beginning when he was araound 13, he supported his mother and put his sister through college, said his daughter Stephanie Roses, 24, a third-year medical student at Duke.
“He loved telling people that he got his start on the streets running numbers,” she said. “He ran numbers for the Gallo family.”
Roses also was known for his infectious laugh, his passion for the Duke’s men’s basketball team and being a wine aficionado.
Prior to his fatal heart attack, Roses had two previous heart attacks, the first of which occurred in 1990.
“He treated every day like it was his last one because he knew it probably was,” said Stephanie Roses. “He lived that way for the last 26 years.” Even at age 73, she added, “he was still doing everything at 100 miles per hour.”
Allen Roses also was chairman of the American Dance Festival since 2011 and had served on the organization’s board since 1999. ADF’s executive director, Jodee Nimerichter, said in a statement that Roses “was an amazing leader, fierce advocate and generous donor.”
Roses is survived by his wife and fellow neuroscience researcher Ann Saunders; daughters Maija Roses, Stephanie Roses, Joanna Roses Ryan and Michelle Roses Holleman; sister, Estelle Irizarry; and four grandchildren. Funeral services have been scheduled for Tuesday at 1 p.m. at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham.