Doctor is award-winning Alzheimer's researcher

December 06, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

This fall, Dr. Donald Price of Columbia went to a $2 million celebrity fund-raiser in New York City to accept an award for his research on Alzheimer's disease. While backstage, he began to chat with a beautiful, relatively famous woman.

He had no idea who she was. Later, someone identified her as model Christie Brinkley.

"I don't know a lot of these folks," the scientist explained matter-of-factly, "and I don't pay a lot of attention."

Dr. Price has other things on his mind.

He has spent the past 12 years studying Alzheimer's disease at Johns Hopkins medical school. In addition to the award he received in New York -- he's not quite sure what it was called -- Dr. Price received a $100,000 prize last spring from the American Academy of Neurology. Two years ago, the Metropolitan Life Foundation gave him a $250,000 award for his work.

Collectively, the awards honor his contributions to understanding Alzheimer's, a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain and impairs memory, thought and behavior. The disease affects 4 million Americans. It is incurable and no one really knows why it occurs.

Since 1980, Dr. Price and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins have made a number of advances in the field. It all started with a Baltimore man who had suffered from the disease for more than a decade.

While looking at a slide of the man's brain, Dr. Price noticed something unusual. A group of nerve cells that help activate memory, attention and learning was nearly gone. It was the first time that anyone had connected the disease with the degeneration of a specific group of cells.

"That one slide got me started on this career," Dr. Price said.

Since then, pharmaceutical companies have built on Dr. Price's research by developing drugs that help reduce memory loss. He and other scientists have found a way to reverse the degeneration of the nerve cells in rats and monkeys with injections of a genetically engineered protein.

Dr. Price hopes to use the protein on a small number of Alzheimer's patients. He hasn't been able to do so, because the protein only became available recently.

The research could pay great dividends, Dr. Price said. The proteins could help delay the onset of Alzheimer's and reduce the number of people sent to nursing homes because they cannot care for themselves.

As people continue to live longer, the disease is expected to strike as many as 14 million people by 2040.

"If you could delay Alzheimer's disease for five years per patient, the cost benefits to society would be enormous," Dr. Price said.

Donald Price grew up in Stamford, Conn., the son of a man who worked with computers at American Telephone & Telegraph Co., and a homemaker. His mother, Edith, taught him to read at age 2. By the time he was 7, he was reading literature.

He went to Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Connecticut. He spent his summers playing semipro baseball for $20 a game in towns like Roanoke, Va., and Montclair, N.J. He also traveled the South, tape recording folk music by people such as Pete Seeger.

"What I wanted to be when I grew up was a folk singer," he said. "But I couldn't carry a tune and I couldn't play the banjo or the guitar so I decided to try something different."

In college, Dr. Price began backing his way into neurology. He started as a humanities and English major studying how poetry and psychology are related. He decided to go to Albany Medical School in New York to become a psychiatrist, but soon found his temperament wasn't suited for it.

"Probably far too aggressive," he said. He decided he was more interested in the brain's role in abnormal behavior.

After a neurology residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and work at Harvard, he went to Johns Hopkins in the early 1970s.

Outside of medicine, Dr. Price, 57, loves to exercise. Until speaking engagements interfered this year, he competed in triathlons -- including one in Columbia -- regularly. A triathlon is a 10-kilometer run, a 25-mile bike ride and one-mile swim.

"I'm not very good," he said. "Truth be told, I much prefer to do training. I have enough competition in my life."

Dr. Price works out regularly. Last week, he described a typical day:

"I usually get up about four in the morning. I work for about an hour and a half, an hour 45 minutes just reading things I'm interested in. Then I'll run for an hour. Then I'll maybe swim for 20 minutes. Then I come home, have breakfast and go to work. Then, at night, I'll stop off at the pool and I'll swim maybe 40 or 50 laps, come home, have supper and then sit around and watch [television]. I guess I'm going to watch Verdi's 'Masked Ball' tonight."

Dr. Price lives with his wife, Helen, to whom he has been married for 36 years. Mrs. Price supervises studies on health issues, including AIDS, colon cancer and -- yes -- Alzheimer's, at Westat, a contract research firm in Rockville.

The Prices' curiosity and energy appear to have rubbed off on their children. One has biked across the United States and competed in the Iron Man, the granddaddy of triathlons. Another competes in triathlons and marathons.

Their son Don Jr. is a neurology resident at Harvard. Their daughter, Elaine, is an ophthalmologist. Their other son Bill is in medical school in Albany.

As his parents did with him, Dr. Price said he tried to instill in his children a strong interest in learning and education at a young age.

Dr. Price's parents "taught me that if you can educate yourself, you can learn anything," he said. "If you want to teach yourself about Rophoclean tragedy, you can do it. You know, there are only seven plays to read."

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