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All eyes on Alzheimer’s

In honor of Sept. 21 World Alzheimer's Day, a look at related research at ASU.
September 20, 2017

ASU's Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center part of $5 million to apply big data to the fight against the unremitting illness

Alzheimer’s, a mysterious disease of cognitive decline, was first recognized a century ago. The unremitting illness continues to frustrate the best efforts toward treatment or prevention, and a tidal wave of new cases in the coming decades threatens to overwhelm the nation’s health-care system.

Sept. 21 has been declared World Alzheimer’s Day by Alzheimer’s Disease International, a worldwide federation of Alzheimer's organizations. The occasion offers an opportunity to reflect on the impressive scientific strides already made in understanding Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, while also coming to terms with the daunting challenges still facing the field.

By 2050, Alzheimer’s is expected to strike one new patient in the U.S. every 33 seconds, resulting in nearly 1 million new cases per year. It remains the only leading killer for which no effective therapy exists.

Arizona State University is intimately involved in the war against this disease and has recently formed a path-breaking, interdisciplinary contingent of leading researchers known as the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center (NDRC).

The center, headquartered at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, has just received a portion of a new $5 million grant, with three of the six researchers named in the new award belonging to the NDRC, including the center’s Interim Director Eric Reiman, a world-renowned leader in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Reiman also directs the ASU-Banner Neuroscience Initiative and is spearheading the Arizona collaboration.

"There is an urgent need to clarify the brain processes involved in the development of Alzheimer's disease and use this information to discover effective ways to treat and prevent the disease," Reiman said. "While studies in animal, cellular and other laboratory models play essential roles in this endeavor, detailed molecular data from persons with and without Alzheimer's are needed to further inform these experimental studies and clarify the extent to which findings are relevant to this fundamentally human disease."

Reiman also serves as executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, CEO of Banner Research and University Professor in ASU’s School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. as well as the director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s consortium. 

The grant and resulting data will help attract future investment from the National Institutes of Health to support further expansion of the human data set.

"This funding provides the foundation to build one of the largest basic and translational neuroscience programs for the fight against Alzheimer's and related neurodegenerative diseases," Reiman said.

The project will be led by Reiman, Winnie S. Liang of Translational Genomics (TGen) and Thomas G. Beach of the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium, and it will include Ben Readhead, a member of the NDRC team, and Joel Dudley, currently affiliated with the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

The important new funding source will help accelerate ASU’s research efforts to apply big data and bioinformatics strategies to the challenge of grappling with an avalanche of new information concerning the causes of Alzheimer’s, as well as to explore the most fruitful avenues for Alzheimer’s therapy.

The NDRC hopes to use the resulting data to further investigate the molecular processes involved in various aspects of Alzheimer’s pathology, including the early drivers of Alzheimer’s development in the brain.

The project provides a foundation for what will be a defining feature of the NDRC, fostering the dynamic interplay of experimental studies in animal and cellular models and new data describing regions of the human brain that are preferentially affected by Alzheimer’s.

The resulting information repository will provide a unique public resource for the global community of Alzheimer’s researchers. Indeed, the partners predict that the data set resulting from this project will become one of the most widely used and highly valued scientific resources in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.

The grant funding comes from the NOMIS Foundation, a private Swiss organization supporting insight-driven scientific endeavors across all disciplines. Established in 2008 in Zurich, the NOMIS Foundation seeks to "create a spark" in the world of science by funding highly innovative, groundbreaking research in the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

In this four-year project, funds will be used to develop a public resource of detailed gene-expression data from human brain cells and regions that differ in the vulnerability or resilience to Alzheimer's disease, and help to galvanize discovery of disease mechanisms, risk factors and treatments.

The project will capitalize on high-quality brain tissue from 100 brain donors with and without Alzheimer's. The brain samples are made available through the Banner Sun Health Research Institute's Brain and Body Donation Program, a world-leading resource of data and brain samples for the fight against Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and other cognitive changes associated with normal aging.

Researchers at ASU will capitalize on emerging data analysis tools to interrogate and make sense of these large data sets, discover those molecular networks that seem to be involved in vulnerability or resilience to different forms of Alzheimer's pathology, and identify molecular targets at which to aim new treatments.

The ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center will then capitalize on the push-pull relationship between this potentially transformational data set, other human data sets and experimental studies in mouse, cellular and other laboratory models at ASU to discover new Alzheimer's disease mechanisms and treatments.

Top image: Graphic by Jason Drees/Biodesign Institute

Richard Harth

Science writer , Biodesign Institute at ASU


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ASU Child Drama Collection extends its reach to scholars

Prized costume designer's collection at ASU to become accessible online.
September 20, 2017

Archives of costume innovator Irene Corey — who created looks from Barney to biblical characters — to feature searchable listing

Arizona State University’s Child Drama Collection is the largest, most utilized and internationally renowned youth-theater repository in the world, according to university officials.

It lures scholars, playwrights, performers and students from around the world to study its costumes, scripts, designs and ephemera — but the reach for one of its most prized portions has been limited to those who could journey to Hayden Library in Tempe.

By the end of the year, however, a listing of the contents of the Irene Corey Collection will become accessible to everyone online. Then, Katherine Krzys believes, “people will be coming in throngs.”

“Irene Corey literally changed the face of costume and makeup design,” said Krzys, who, among other roles — archivist, actress, director, author and historian — is the curator of the Child Drama Collection.

“All those innovations are documented visually and in print in her archive for scholars and artists to discover. It’s a one-of-a-kind source that will inspire generations of new theatrical artists.”

Irene Corey and Barney, one of her most famous creations.

For over a half-century Corey designed costumes, sets and makeup for shows as varied as theater classics and theme-park characters. Corey first became nationally known for the “Book of Job” in the 1950s, which had 22-year run throughout the world.

She also designed the costumes for the television show “Barney and Friends” (including the friendly dinosaur's trademark purple color) and helped create the first Chick-fil-A cows and Half Price Books’ Bookworm. Many in the field also believe without Corey’s visionary work audiences would not have seen “Cats” or “Lion King” on Broadway.

Among the collection's items are Corey’s innovative costumes for “The Tempest” and “The Book of Job,” animal makeup renderings, production photographs, costume renderings and her historical and cultural research files.

“Irene was really into process, and when you look at this collection, you’re going to see little ideas on the back of menus, on the back of envelopes,” Krzys said. “Her process is the most important thing the collection can tell you.”

It can also tell you that Corey’s life’s work is worth a pretty pennyCorey died of Parkinson’s disease in 2010. She was 84.. Originally valued at $200,000 at the time it was donated in 1995, today it's possible the collection is worth millions said Lynda Xepoleas, an art history major at ASU’s School of ArtThe School of Art is a unit within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. and aide in the ASU Library conservation lab.

“I once worked on a Marc Chagall costume exhibit, and he and Irene Corey were top artists in their respective fields,” said Xepoleas, who is working with Krzys to preserve the costume portion of the collection. “The things I see in Irene’s collection are just as impressive as what I saw in his exhibit.”

For the past few months Xepoleas has been creating hanging and boxed storage for costumes, props, masks, wands, headpieces, belts and gloves. She said working with these items has given her an insight into Corey’s creative process.

“She wanted these costumes and props to be seen from a distance rather than be functional,” Xepoleas said. “To witness history up close has been very rewarding for me.”

Krzys said it took over a decade to convince Corey to donate her papers to ASU.

“I went personally to pack up her papers at her art-filled house in Dallas — finding costumes in the dirt crawl space of her outdoor studio, renderings under the sideboard in her dining room — wherever she had space,” Krzys said. “The process was filled with laughter, amazing stories, advice for designers and a lifelong friendship.”

The Irene Corey Collection is a part of the Child Drama Collection, the largest compilation in the world documenting the international history of children's theater back to the 16th century.

It was established at ASU in 1979 by librarian Marilyn Wurzburger, head of Special Collections, and by Lin Wright, chair of the ASU Department of Theatre. They jointly recommended the development of a Child Drama Collection in response to the academic needs of youth-theater students and faculty at ASU and the research needs of professional artists and educators throughout the world.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The first collection donated to the university, Wurzburger said, came from Rita Criste, a children’s theater professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who donated her papers and books to ASU.

“Every university library likes to distinguish themselves because they know it will give them a certain prestige. They know people will come from around the world to look at a collection,” said Wurzburger, who started at ASU in 1960 and retired in 2009.

Those people include John Newman, a theater professor at Utah Valley University who brought four theater students with him in July to view the collection. The students recently received a grant to research and develop a new play for the Utah Children’s Theatre called “Builders of America,” based on several historic American characters.

“The students were so engaged in research that it was hard to pull them away from the process,” Newman said. “We were greeted by the character Job, who was in an original Irene Corey costume, and it was a great introduction to the collection.”

Newman added that the collection captured the imagination of each of his students — a designer, a playwright, a director and a dramaturgeA dramaturge is a professional writer/editor within a theater or opera company who deals mainly with research and development of plays or operas..

“Kathy was able to find something that appealed to their individual or found a tangent that extended their interest,” Newman said. “It was an exceptional experience.”

Ashley Laverty, an MFA graduate from the School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s Theatre for Youth program in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said she spent a good portion of her academic career perusing through the collection, drawing inspiration for her work.

“I used the collection pretty steadily all three years I was in grad school at ASU, and it was a huge resource for me,” said Laverty, who now works for the Rose Theater, a premiere performing-arts venue in Omaha, Nebraska. “I’m lucky to have been in a program where I could literally ask Kathy about a play and she knows how to get it.”

Wurzburger said once a university starts building a collection, others begin to notice.

“People start to think, ‘I’d like my papers to sit beside those,’” Wurzburger said. “When you get a good start, there’s hope you can build on that.”

Wurzburger was able to build on the collection through a key recruit she made in 1985 by enlisting the help of Krzys, who was then a graduate research assistant in the ASU MFA Theatre for Youth Program. Krzys said she had a job lined up at a children’s theater in San Francisco once she had obtained her master’s degree. She said she was required to write a research-methods paper and had stumbled upon the Child Drama Collection.

It was Krzys who oversaw the transfer of the collection from typewriter-generated finding aids into computer searchable lists of contents. The collection started with 132 books and 100 linear feet of archival collections. Today it contains more than 9,200 books, 294 periodical titles, more than 2,000 audio-visual media, and almost 5,000 linear feet of manuscript collections, documenting professional theater for young audiences, youth theater and toddler-through-high-school theater education.

Other highlights of the Child Drama Collection include:

Jonathan Levy Collection: Donated in 1999, it contains more than 350 books with copyrights from the 17th through 20th centuries, and manuscripts chronicling Levy's academic and professional career. Prior to getting this archive, the Child Drama Collection had documented the history of the field only from 1900 onward. The Levy collection expanded research possibilities back to the 16th centuryJonathan Levy also did research into what was happening in children’s theater in the 16th century; his personal research is included in the manuscripts he donated along with his library. In addition, books from the 17th century covered 16th-century events. and made the Child Drama Collection the largest repository of materials on youth theater in the world.

Lowell and Nancy Swortzell Theatre Arts Collection: The award-winning Swortzells, who created the Educational Theatre Program at New York University, saved every scrap of paper — every letter, photo and class note — and started donating them to the Child Drama Collection so that their scholarship and teaching methods could be shared by scholars. This was the largest single donation of books and manuscripts to the Child Drama Collection.

The David, Sonja and Benjamin Saar Yellow Boat Collection: It contains framed drawings, posters, correspondence from audience members, letters and drawings from schoolchildren, photographs, press releases and other materials documenting the writing and production of “The Yellow Boat,” a play Saar wrote for his son Benjamin, a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion and was asked to leave his private school.

Childsplay Records: ASU not only collaborates frequently with Tempe-based Childsplay Theatre but houses its archives. It includes video cassette tapes and DVDs from productions, scripts, posters, workshop and planning materials, and set models.

Krzys, who had once envisioned a life directing children’s theater only to spend the next three decades at ASU, says her life ended up having more purpose because of the power, reach and influence of the collection.

“I would have never thought I’d be a librarian for more than 30 years, but I stayed for a variety of reasons. I’m a big believer in fate,” Krzys said.

“I’ve been all around the world. I’ve met amazing people. And I don’t regret a single moment of my career.”

Top photo: Special collections preservationist Lynda Xepoleas presents two masks from the Irene Corey Collection at Hayden Library on Sept. 6 in Tempe. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now