Houston-based scientist leads Alzheimer’s panel April 20 at Emanu-El
By Sean Shapiro
Special to the TJP
Jim Ray spends much of his time in the lab at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
It’s where Ray, who came to MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2013 with an extensive background in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, leads a team of researchers who are seeking to develop gene therapies to treat Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease that impacts more than 5 million, mostly elderly, Americans.
The lab time is important, but in his fight against Alzheimer’s, Ray says he needs to find time for fact finding missions. He needs to get out into the community, speak to the families afflicted and gather as much information as possible.
That’s why he’s leading a panel discussion exploring the scientific, social and emotional challenges of Alzheimer’s disease at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 20, at Temple Emanu-El (8500 Hillcrest Road).
“It’s so important that we get out and talk to the people who are living with this disease and fighting it every day,” Ray said in an interview with the Texas Jewish Post. “We look for a cure and a solution in the lab, but you never realize how much you can learn from those dealing with it daily and hearing their stories.”
The full panel will include Theresa Hocker, executive director, Alzheimer’s Association North Central Texas Chapter; Paul Chafetz, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, private practice; Beverly Sanborn, gerontologist and vice president, Program Development, Belmont Village Senior Living; and Peggy Papert, LCSW, founder and owner, Elder Care Consultants of Texas. There is a A “lunch and learn” session from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. that day at Belmont Village Turtle Creek, (3535 N. Hall St.) where the panel will be joined by a family caregiver, who will share experiences and insights from her journey with her loved one.
Information will be presented at the panel and there are specific points Ray plans to discuss, but he said the key to the panels are generating an open discussion.
“I remember one time we spoke with a caregiver and they shared how much has to get done early in the process, things that you might not think of,” Ray said. “Things like a living will, verbal power of attorney, things that get overlooked early. Those are types of things these discussions bring up that can help even more than anything we might have planned to say. The more we can share ideas and help each other, the better.”
Ray’s background is an interesting one. He works at a cancer hospital, which usually aren’t directly connected to Alzheimer’s research.
“But there’s actually some interesting links between cancer and Alzheimer’s,” Ray told the Houston Chronicle back in February. “With cancer, you have cells you can’t kill. With Alzheimer’s, you have cells you can’t keep alive. So you can see, scientifically, how they maybe have some common elements that are worth exploring.”
The team, known as the Neurodegeneration Consortium, has developed a therapeutic treatment they think could potentially slow the loss of brain cells in Alzheimer’s patients and, in theory, give them a few extra years of normal brain function.
The treatment has shown promise in animal models, Ray told the Chronicle, and while the team hopes to test it in a clinical trial within the next year, he warned against drawing early conclusions — little progress had been made in understanding and treating the memory-robbing disease, the nation’s sixth leading cause of death.
However with caution, comes optimism. And that’s another reason Ray is looking forward to the event on April 20.
“I see a chance to help others and they can help me,” Ray said. “We’re all fighting this together and it’s something that we can hopefully find an answer for sooner than later.”