Donna Wilcock, PhD, wears many hats at the University of Kentucky, all of which are roles that help advance education and research in the Commonwealth, particularly in the realm of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Wilcock is assistant dean for biomedicine at the UK College of Medicine, as well as associate director of Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. She is also the Robert P. and Mildred A. Moores Endowed Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease in the UK College of Medicine Department of Physiology.
In the following Q&A, she shares more about her path to UK and offers advice for the next generation of scientists.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in research?
A: I got into research during my undergraduate at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. I had wanted to go to veterinary school but didn’t get in, so I pursued a degree in pharmacology. I did a summer research internship in a neuroscience laboratory studying epilepsy. I was immediately intrigued by the brain and how the brain goes wrong. That’s what led me into studying neurodegeneration.
Q: What motivated you to study Alzheimer’s and dementia?
A: I have been incredibly fortunate in my family that we have not been affected by dementia beyond some age-related impairment in grandparents. However, I have witnessed the devastation of dementia-causing diseases on others. These diseases, unlike most other conditions, affect the entire family to the same or even greater degree than the patient. Also, unlike other conditions, these diseases progress slowly over years and even decades. The impact on the children, spouses, and siblings of dementia patients is huge. They are often providing unpaid care, making financial and care decisions for the patient, and making difficult decisions about driving and living independently.
There is little more frightening to anyone than losing the sense of self; losing their independence and ability to think and remember. It is the knowledge that there are over 6.5 million Americans currently living with dementia, and many more millions caring for someone with dementia, that motivates me every day. Anything we can do to slow or prevent the onset and progression of dementia will make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people.
Q: What are some of your proudest career accomplishments?
A: There are many, but one accomplishment that I continue to be proud of was that my PhD work with Dave Morgan in Tampa, Fla., was foundational to the therapies that are now appearing to modify disease progression in Alzheimer’s disease. It is likely that one of these will receive FDA approval in 2023 based on their top-line phase 3 data already reported. To know that I had a part in the development of those therapies is so rewarding. Also, I have been proud to establish mentoring programs in the College of Medicine, and I have worked hard to ensure good mentoring is expected, recognized, and acknowledged, here at UK in my role as assistant dean of biomedicine.
Q: Is there anything you’ve done recently – maybe a grant or publication – you want to share?
A: I was recently awarded a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 that brings together a lot of the research paths I have pursued going back to graduate school. During my PhD I studied immunotherapy for Alzheimer’s disease and its mechanisms of action in the brain using transgenic mice. We were also one of the first groups to show that there are some adverse events related to the blood vessels in the brain in the form of microhemorrhages. These continued to be observed in clinical trials for numerous different immunotherapeutic approaches and are now termed amyloid-related imaging abnormalities (ARIA). In my program here at UK, we have been studying vascular mechanisms of dementia for over 10 years. Now, with the prospect of FDA approval of immunotherapy despite ARIA incidence in anywhere from 10-40% of patients, we feel it is critically important to understand why these occur and whether we can use adjunct therapies to prevent their occurrence. We proposed to apply cutting-edge techniques and novel models to study ARIA mechanisms and determine whether at least one of two already FDA-approved drugs might prevent ARIA incidence.
Q: What is most fulfilling about your career?
A: I enjoy all aspects of my career and wouldn’t change a thing. However, I would say the most fulfilling part of my career is mentoring trainees. Helping PhD students and postdoctoral trainees develop their research skills, their communication of their science, and establish their independence in the field is the most rewarding aspect of what I do. Seeing trainees find their passion and career path is incredibly heartwarming. I also love to bring researchers together to build new collaborations and research programs.
Q: What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a research career?
A: In short, do it! A career in research provides a challenging but rewarding path. There are many types of research ranging from cells in a dish, to animal models, to clinical research, and even epidemiologic studies of populations. Also, there are many career paths to pursue with a PhD including pharmaceutical research, clinical trial research, and science communication including medical-scientific liaisons and journalism. I would encourage anyone who thinks they may be interested in research to volunteer in a laboratory and explore the career by talking to those who do research.