EAU CLAIRE — A retired Eau Claire ophthalmologist and microbiology researcher is beginning a study he hopes will contribute to the push for a successful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Tom Dow, who founded Chippewa Valley Eye Clinic in 1978 and worked as an ophthalmologist for over 40 years, now runs an Alzheimer’s treatment center in Eau Claire, Mindful Diagnostics & Therapeutics.
After receiving a grant to study the disease, Dow is recruiting participants between 65 and 80 years old for an Eau Claire-based, nine-month study on Alzheimer’s risk.
The study will inoculate 50 people with the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine. It’s a tuberculosis vaccine commonly used in many countries, but not typically given in the U.S. due to low risk of tuberculosis infection and variable effectiveness in adults, according to the CDC.
Dow hopes his research will show if the BCG vaccine has any effect on certain biomarkers in participants’ blood.
If those biomarkers — which are, in simplified terms, proteins in the brain called amyloid and tau — change or clump, it is an indicator of risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association.
Blood tests, a vaccine and Alzheimer’s
A 2019 study published in the American Academy of Neurology suggested that a blood test could accurately detect the amyloid protein in a person’s plasma. (The gold standard tests to detect Alzheimer’s are currently PET scans and spinal taps, Dow said.)
Blood tests will be a large function of the study. During his research, Dow will first conduct several blood tests on the participants, then administer two doses of the BCG vaccine, one month apart. Nine months later, the participants will return to Eau Claire for another blood test. (There won’t be any placebo group — everyone in the study will get the BCG vaccine.)
Dow hopes to find out if the BCG vaccine will decrease the amount of amyloid protein in the participants’ plasma. If it does, it would suggest that their risk of developing Alzheimer’s will have decreased.
“Wouldn’t that be interesting to know, at 50 years old, if you had a greater risk than the next guy (of developing Alzheimer’s), and to get this vaccine if you knew it was going to lessen your risk?” Dow said. “That’s what we’re hoping this will lead to.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, according to the CDC.
The Alzheimer’s Association projects that more than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, predicting that by 2050 that number will rise to almost 14 million. The disease has no cure.
Some promising signs already link the BCG vaccine with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.
Dow also noted a 2019 study, which found that bladder cancer patients treated with materials from the BCG vaccine were significantly less likely to later develop Alzheimer’s disease than patients who weren’t treated with the BCG vaccine materials.
Over 30 people have already enrolled in Dow’s Eau Claire study — some local, some from as far as the East and West coasts, Dow said.
But he’s looking for more local participants between 65 and 80 years old, preferably with a family history of Alzheimer’s.
The study is personal for Dow. Though he primarily performed cataract surgery during his early career, his background is in microbiology.
Dow’s brother has also been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, a condition that indicates a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
“Wouldn’t it be great for people in that boat to know that there’s something to bring you back from that brink?” Dow said.
Measuring someone’s likelihood of developing the disease isn’t binary, Dow said. It’s not a yes-or-no question — more of a “tipping point.”
A healthy diet, exercise, eight hours of sleep and reducing stress can all postpone cognitive loss, he said.
“But it would be very helpful to know if you’re at higher risk,” Dow added.
Dow plans to publish the results of the 2021 study. He hopes the research will help seniors and their families gauge the risk of the disease.
“Something has to happen,” he said.
Those interested in participating in the study can email Alie Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.