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Illustration of an elderly person's face in puzzle pieces.
Illustration by Emily Tu

Defeating Dementia

Mark Tanz’s $5-million gift will support research into Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases

Half a million Canadians suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As the population ages, this number is expected to double over the next 35 years, imposing an immense economic burden on the country – and exacting a huge personal toll from families and caregivers.

Although scientists are making progress uncovering the causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia and understanding how they progress, no effective treatment or cure exists. Mark Tanz (BA 1952 UC) is all too aware of the tragic personal consequences of Alzheimer’s, having witnessed his mother gradually lose her memory and other cognitive functions after she was diagnosed with the disease in 1983. Tanz began looking into the science of Alzheimer’s, and what he found alarmed him. “I was hoping there would be a cure – something that would slow the disease down. Unfortunately there was virtually no research being done in Canada.”

This discovery – and a serendipitous conversation with then–U of T physiologist Donald McLachlan – prompted Tanz, in 1987, to donate $3.4 million to the university to help establish the Tanz Centre for Research into Neurodegenerative Diseases. Since then, Tanz has contributed another $6.1 million to support the centre’s research.

Dr. Peter St. George-Hyslop, the director of the Tanz Centre, says his team is examining many aspects of neurodegenerative diseases, including how to diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier. “We know by the time the disease comes to clinical attention, it has been present for 10 years or more,” he says. “We want to be able to detect the presence of disease at the preclinical level.”

St. George-Hyslop and the Tanz Centre’s research scientists made international news in the 1990s and again recently for discovering genes related to the production of amyloid-beta peptide, a substance that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and is thought to be a key factor in the progression of the disease.

However, St. George-Hyslop cautions that there are processes involved besides the buildup of amyloid-beta, and these need to be understood before an effective treatment will be found. He cites the example of tau protein – another substance that aggregates in the brain and kills neurons. Removing the amyloid after it accumulates does not eliminate the tau. St. George-Hyslop compares the situation to an arsonist who uses matches and gasoline to set a house on fire. Once the fire is lit, putting away the matches does nothing to address the problem.

St. George-Hsylop says the Tanz gift will allow the centre to recruit additional scientists and expand its investigation into the role of amyloid and tau protein in Alzheimer’s disease. But he also hopes the gift will act as a catalyst for other donors by underscoring the importance of the Tanz Centre’s work. “[The donation shows that] many people see Alzheimer’s as a major threatening illness and are willing to give their hardearned money to enable us to do this work,” he says.

U of T’s Faculty of Medicine and the Toronto General and Western Hospital Foundation are in the process of raising $31 million for the Tanz Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases. Tanz is co-chairing the fundraising effort with his friend Lionel Schipper (JD 1956), who also lost his mother to Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Society is a major supporter of the Tanz Centre, having contributed $11 million since the centre was established.

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