USC’s Paul Aisen, pioneering Alzheimer’s researcher, honored with Epstein Alzheimer’s Disease Director’s Chair

An international leader in Alzheimer’s disease research for over 30 years, Aisen is recognized with the highest academic honor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

June 09, 2023 Michael Price, Leigh Hopper

Paul Aisen, the founding director of USC’s Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute and a professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, was honored Friday as the inaugural recipient of the Epstein Alzheimer’s Disease Director’s Chair.

Aisen’s receipt of the honor — the highest academic honor at the Keck School — was the capstone moment of an extraordinary effort by USC Trustee Daniel J. Epstein and his family to accelerate the search for Alzheimer’s treatment and a cure. Colleagues, university leaders, family and friends crowded the San Diego event to share their appreciation for Aisen’s work in pushing the limits of what is known about the disease.

Defeating this disease is really one of the most daunting moonshots in medicine today.

Carol L. Folt, USC president

“Defeating this disease is really one of the most daunting moonshots in medicine today,” said USC President Carol L. Folt, characterizing Aisen and Epstein as ambitious problem-solvers dedicated to making a difference in the health and well-being of others. “But [Epstein’s] optimism and dedication have always enabled the best to do cutting-edge research, and this record of success continues with this new chair and with the work that all of you do.”

Aisen echoed Folt’s recognition of the role of teamwork: “Everybody in this room has a common mission of accelerating the development of effective treatments. What allows us to accomplish what we’ve accomplished is having everybody here together in an academic environment, supported by a fabulous university, working on innovation, collaboration, data sharing and moving the field forward.”

An unusual gift

Galvanized by a family loss — Epstein’s twin brother lived for 15 years with Alzheimer’s disease — the Epstein Family Foundation announced a $50 million joint gift to USC and the University of California, San Diego, in January 2022. The family made the unusual stipulation that the donation, split evenly, foster collaboration between the two institutions.

The family also established the USC Epstein Breakthrough Alzheimer’s Research Fund, which funds innovative, interdisciplinary research projects across USC that advance the development of new therapies and preventive measures for Alzheimer’s disease.

Our family’s support for Alzheimer’s research is intended to inspire others and generate real impact.

Daniel J. Epstein, USC trustee

“Our family’s support for Alzheimer’s research is intended to inspire others and generate real impact,” Epstein said. “We hope our commitments resonate with those who have the means to contribute to the cause — we urge them to look at their resources and say, ‘I want to help, too.’ Funding can accelerate promising research. Above all, it can shorten the time until we see more effective treatments and therapeutics, which we’re on the verge of, right now.”

Epstein, who earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering in 1962, has served as a USC trustee for two decades. He is the founder of the San Diego-based ConAm group of companies. A longtime champion of USC initiatives, he traces his success to his USC education.

In 2021, Epstein and his wife, Phyllis, contributed $14 million to his namesake department at USC Viterbi in industrial and systems engineering. The gift was part of $25 million in total support that he has contributed to advance industrial and systems engineering research, teaching and learning.

Linked by loss

Like the Epsteins, Aisen has a personal tie to Alzheimer’s: His maternal grandmother died from the disease.

His clinical interest in the disease goes back to his time at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where he served as chief medical resident. It was there, in the late 1980s, that some of the first attempts at treating memory loss took place.

In 1999, Aisen founded the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University, a clinical and research program for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. After many years of basic research studies, he became founding director of USC’s Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute in 2015. His work deepened scientific understanding of the crucial early years before symptoms manifest, which could offer an important window for potential treatments.

Under Aisen’s leadership, ATRI organizes and conducts rigorous trials investigating potential treatment avenues for Alzheimer’s disease — supported by millions of dollars in federal funding as well as contracts with private industry. On Friday, an FDA advisory panel unanimously endorsed the clinical benefits of the Alzheimer’s drug lecanemab, moving it forward for consideration for full FDA approval. ATRI played a pivotal role in advancing the treatment, with Aisen as the senior investigator for the clinical trial.

At least 6 million people in the United States are living with this debilitating and ultimately fatal brain disorder, and the situation is likely to worsen. As the U.S. population ages, the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s could reach 14 million by 2060, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Aisen’s efforts unite Alzheimer’s researchers across the country. ATRI oversees the Alzheimer’s Clinical Trials Consortium, which centralizes resources and facilitates the sharing of expertise to accelerate the development of effective interventions.

Aisen and his team also are key partners in running a comprehensive training program (IMPACT-AD) to educate and diversify the next generations of clinical trial professionals.

Folt noted that Aisen’s favorite hobby is astrophotography — taking pictures of the night sky or objects in space.

“It’s really the perfect hobby: The glimmer of stars are much like the pulsing neurons of the human brain,” Folt said. “And I know you have made it your life’s work to assure that these constellations of light that power our emotions and thoughts never dim with the onset of Alzheimer’s.”