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Third-year McGovern Medical School student assists in game-changing Alzheimer’s disease discoveries

Gabriela Grangeiro Cruz, a third-year student at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. (Photo provided by Cruz)
Gabriela Grangeiro Cruz, a third-year student at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. (Photo provided by Cruz)

Though still a third-year student with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, Gabriela Grangeiro Cruz is already working to broaden the medical field’s, and the public’s, understanding of Alzheimer’s disease by studying ways to prevent the neurocognitive disorder, which affects 6 million people living in the U.S.

Just a few months ago, Cruz co-authored a UTHealth Houston-led study that found several routine vaccinations – including tetanus and diphtheria, with and without pertussis (Tdap/Td); shingles (HZ); and pneumococcal – were all associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The study’s senior author was Paul E. Schulz, MD, the Rick McCord Professor in Neurology, the Umphrey Family Professor in Neurodegenerative Diseases, and director of the Neurocognitive Disorders Research Center with McGovern Medical School.

Having always been intrigued by the brain and neurocognitive disorders, Cruz connected with Schulz when she was considering participating in the medical school’s summer research program.

“After speaking with Dr. Schulz, it sunk in that we only have a few treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, and the majority of them are fairly recent,” Cruz said. “The idea that something as simple as a vaccine could have such a significant impact on your health really interested me.”

Through their research, which was published in July, they discovered patients who received the Tdap/Td vaccine were 30% less likely than their unvaccinated peers to develop the disease; HZ vaccination was associated with a 25% reduced risk of developing the disease; and the pneumococcal vaccine was linked to a 27% reduced risk.

For Cruz – whose family is from Brazil, Portugal, Spain, and Puerto Rico – this work holds special significance, as the Latino and Hispanic community is estimated to be 1.5 times more prone to develop Alzheimer’s disease than white non-Hispanics. It’s also personal, as Cruz lost her grandmother to dementia and remembers the emotional toll it took on her family.

“It seems that several social determinants of health are very influential in this discrepancy. This could also involve cultural barriers or limited access to health care services,” Cruz said. “What I think is really great about our study is that it highlights preventive medicine and provides even more incentive to get vaccinated, especially during a time with so much vaccine hesitancy.”   

This isn’t the only Alzheimer’s-related discovery Cruz has had a hand in. Earlier this year, she presented an abstract to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) Neuroscience Next that investigated the association between Alzheimer’s disease and potential transmissible routes.

According to the preliminary findings, certain dental procedures – including dental cleanings, tooth extractions, and more – reduced the odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, smoking, obesity, and unhealthy levels of cholesterol or fats in the blood increased the odds of the disease.

“More broadly, we are investigating whether there is a transmissible component to Alzheimer’s disease,” Cruz said of the overarching project, on which she is collaborating with Schulz; Kristofer Harris, RN, program manager in the Department of Neurology at the medical school; and Jenna Thomas, another medical student. “One of the more interesting things we’ve found so far is that greater access to dental care was associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so that’s all the more reason to go to the dentist.”

To further examine the results from the transmissibility study, the researchers are delving deeper into the mechanisms underlying the protective effect of dental procedures against Alzheimer’s disease. The results will hopefully be available in December, but so far, the preliminary analysis is consistent with earlier findings.

With one year left in medical school, Cruz is still deciding whether she wants to apply for a residency in neurology or anesthesiology. But regardless of which path she chooses, she’s already made her mark with useful information to help guard older generations against a debilitating disease.

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