A new national designation will give San Antonio’s leading Alzheimer’s research institute access to national funds to expand its research on the degenerative disease that disproportionately affects Hispanics.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, in partnership with The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, announced Thursday it has been named a federally designated Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Funded by the National Institute on Aging, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Alzheimer’s disease research centers work to “translate research advances into improved diagnosis and care, as well as find ways to treat and possibly prevent Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” according to the NIA’s website. The South Texas center will become the 33rd research center in the national network.

With Hispanics 50% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than non-Latino whites, Alzheimer’s poses a unique threat to Texas, which according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data is almost 40% Hispanic. That percentage is even higher in San Antonio, where roughly 65% of the population is Hispanic.

Because of this increased risk, the creation of a center focused on researching Alzheimer’s in Latinos is important to Texas’ future, said Dr. Sudha Seshadri, professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio and founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute.

Both UT Health San Antonio’s Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases and UTRGV’s Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research presently research degenerative diseases in Latinos, but this new classification will allow the two to significantly expand their efforts, Sheshadri said.

“We are, of course, different universities,” Seshadri said. “But there are other [Alzheimer’s research centers] that act as a single center despite being partners. We will have a single [institutional review board] for this, so we’ll be doing the same things in both places.”

The partners hope to learn more about why Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects Hispanics, as well as to find better treatments for the degenerative disease, said Dr. Gladys Maestre, UTRGV professor of neurosciences and director of that university’s Alzheimer’s research center.

“Alzheimer’s disease takes a higher toll among Hispanics,” Maestre said. “Through the partnership with the team in San Antonio and the network of other [Alzheimer’s research centers], we will be positioned to make discoveries needed to change the trajectory of pain caused by the disease.”

The collaboration between UT Health San Antonio and UTRGV is “a key step in expanding research opportunities that will help enhance the quality of life for countless Hispanics in South Texas,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in a press release.

As an Alzheimer’s disease research center, the South Texas center partners will become part of the national conversation, Seshadri said. Research from the center will join national data sets which will hopefully move the world closer to a cure for Alzheimer’s, UT Health Science Center President Dr. William Henrich said in the release.

Seshadri told the San Antonio Report the designation is a “big responsibility,” and is one she and Maestre take very seriously. With the Biggs Institute and RGV’s research institute both less than five years old, being named federal research center so soon is a “huge honor,” she said. “We are excited to expand our potential impact.”

This story has been updated to reflect that this national designation was not the first in Texas.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.