UCSB professor Kenneth Kosik’s research on Alzheimer’s disease in Colombia was featured in the documentary “Filling the Blank,” which will air Feb. 19 on CNN.
The program follows the work of Kosik and other researchers who have spent nearly 20 years studying a large family around the town of Medellin, Colombia. The family — which includes about 5,000 people living in 12 different villages — carries a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, according to Kosik.
The researchers identified a specific gene mutation responsible for the disease in the family.
“Since they all get the disease at about the same age — their mid-40s — we not only know who’s going to get it, but we know when they’re going to get it,” Kosik said. “So therefore, if we’re trying to test a medication to see if it can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, this is the perfect population.”
Kosik’s work in Colombia began with another neurosurgeon who asked for help developing a neuroscience program in Bogota. After delivering a lecture about the program, Kosik was approached by neurologist Francisco Lopera. In the Antioquia region, Lopera had discovered an extended family developing a form of dementia that he suspected was a rare mutation of Alzheimer’s disease.
“At first, I didn’t realize exactly how important this was,” Kosik said. “But Francisco Lopera was very persistent and I realized that he was talking about something that was extraordinarily important, and I jumped on the next plane to Medellin to start working on this.”
The team collected blood samples from family members to find the gene. Kosik and Lopera had to examine the brain tissue of dead family members to prove that Alzheimer’s disease was responsible for the dementia.
“It’s been very important to me that the real thrust of this research come from the people in Colombia,” Kosik said. “[Our goal] is to build research capacity in their own institutions.”
Several methods are now used to recognize the disease before its onset. Brain imaging techniques allow scientists to look at the brain and how it is functioning, Kosik said. Imaging techniques have allowed scientists to detect some of the brain changes in patients up to 50 years before the onset of symptoms, Dr. Eric Reiman of the Banner’s Alzheimer’s Institute said in a documentary clip on CNN’s website.
“The patient in the beginning is correct at drawing figures and in the details of the forms, but when the disease progresses, we observe how the deterioration becomes evident,” Sonia Moreno, neuropsychologist at the University of Antioquia, said in a clip translated by CNN International on the documentary’s website.
Felipe Barral, senior producer for features at CNN International/Español’s special project unit, spent eight months on the project. Barral was working on a health show when a colleague showed him a newspaper article about the families in Medellin.
“I knew if the story was strong enough, it would relate to everyone around the world,” Barral said. “We’re not just doing a portrait of Alzheimer’s, but really talking about the future of the disease.”
Barral directed and produced the film. He began talking to Kosik via e-mails and phone calls, and when the two met in Colombia, they felt an instant connection, Barral said.
“He’s really passionate about what he does,” Barral said. “I was able to sense that passion. He is really a rock star of science.”
Two students are working with Kosik at UCSB on this project: Colombian graduate student Israel Hernandez and undergraduate Madison Cornwall.
“I would like to think that this will help inspire students to take an interest in medical research and pursue it as a career,” Kosik said.