Dale Schenk, Who Saw Immune System as Weapon Against Alzheimer’s, Dies at 59


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Dale B. Schenk in an undated photograph. His research on Alzheimer’s disease “pivoted the field,” one expert said.

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Nana Kofi Nti

Dale B. Schenk, a scientist and industry leader whose discoveries opened new paths into research on Alzheimer’s disease, died on Sept. 30 at his home in Hillsborough, Calif. He was 59.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Ellen Rose, the head of communications at Prothena, a Dublin-based biotechnology company that Dr. Schenk had led as president and chief executive since its founding in 2012.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. It affects 5.4 million people in the United States and is the sixth-leading cause of death. There is no cure or means of prevention, and current treatments cannot stop it from eating away the brain.

Dr. Schenk made a major contribution in the 1990s by proposing and testing the idea that the body’s immune system — which normally fights infection — might be enlisted to fight Alzheimer’s through the use of vaccines and other immune-based treatments.

“It was a novel approach that took the field by surprise and captured the imagination of the world,” said Dr. Eric M. Reiman, the executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix.

Success has been elusive — the seemingly promising avenue of research has not produced a treatment. But studies continue, hints of progress have emerged, and researchers say that results of the research, expected in the next few years, should determine whether Dr. Schenk was on the right track.

A hallmark of Alzheimer’s is the buildup of a sticky protein, amyloid, between nerve cells in the brain. Many scientists think amyloid causes the disease. Dr. Schenk agreed, and he suspected that if the immune system could be prompted to attack amyloid, it might curtail or even eliminate the disease.

In 1999, he led a team from Elan Pharmaceuticals that published a landmark report in the prestigious journal Nature. Using mice that had been genetically engineered to develop Alzheimer’s, the team vaccinated the animals against amyloid.

In younger mice, amyloid deposits never formed. In older mice, which already had deposits, the vaccine reduced them markedly.

“That was a game changer,” said Dr. Jason Karlawish, an Alzheimer’s expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “He pivoted the field.”

The mouse study led to a flood of research on related immune-based efforts to wipe out amyloid.

But the mouse vaccine did not live up to its promise. In humans, a trial had to be stopped because several patients developed brain inflammation. Later, autopsies showed that amyloid deposits had cleared up in people who got the vaccine — but they had still declined mentally.

There have been other disappointments, but Nature reported last month that an immune-based treatment had reduced amyloid and seemed to slow patients’ mental decline. It was the first encouraging news in a long time.

“Any success the field has in this regard will be part of Dale Schenk’s lasting legacy,” Dr. Reiman said.

Dr. Schenk died on the same day as another prominent Alzheimer’s researcher, Dr. Allen Roses, who had a very different point of view regarding the cause of the disease. Dr. Roses, long affiliated with Duke University, was an outspoken skeptic of the amyloid theory and believed that deposits of the protein in patients’ brains were a symptom rather than a cause of Alzheimer’s.

Dale Bernard Schenk was born on May 10, 1957, in Pasadena, Calif., to the former Rosemary De Videaux, a family therapist, and Walter Bernard Schenk, the fire chief of East Pasadena.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a Ph.D. in pharmacology and physiology from the University of California, San Diego. He went from academia to industry, as a researcher and high-level executive at several companies, including Athena Neurosciences and Elan.

At Prothena, he worked on immune-based treatments for Parkinson’s disease and illnesses, other than Alzheimer’s, that are related to amyloid. Despite his own illness, diagnosed in 2014, he continued working until shortly before his death.

Dr. Karlawish and Dr. Michael Schlossmacher, the director of the neuroscience program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, said that Dr. Schenk had particularly been liked and respected for his eagerness to share information and ideas and to collaborate with other scientists — something that researchers who work for industry are not always willing or free to do.

In 2001, he became the first industry scientist to win the American Academy of Neurology’s Potamkin Prize, which recognizes major contributions to research on Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.

Dr. Schenk is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, a former professor of English; their sons, Max and Sam; two daughters, Anais and Sara, from a previous marriage, to Maria Torres, who died in 2005; a stepbrother, Mark Nagy; and a stepsister, Linda Lopez.

Growing up, Dr. Schenk saw his grandmother and others he knew succumb to Alzheimer’s. When hiring young scientists, he looked for those who had a personal connection to a disease — not necessarily Alzheimer’s — and who cared about human suffering, Dr. Schlossmacher said. Those who cared, Dr. Schenk believed, would always give their best.

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