Understanding disease, understanding links

Inspiration from a childhood trauma

Dr. Gordon Glazner learned first-hand about the power of the human spirit at the age of five when he struggled with severe asthma and allergies. Not only did he learn it, he demonstrated it.

He was one of 14 children in a special ward at Denver, Colorado’s National Jewish Hospital, a leading centre for respiratory health.

“I remember one night being in so much trouble that I crawled out of bed and banged on my door until I got help,” says Glazner, Principal Investigator at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre’s Division of Neurodegenerative Disorders.

By the end of his year living at the hospital, Glazner was the only child who survived. And he was discharged with a less-than-rosy prognosis. “They said that I could be stunted, that I would probably need a wheelchair, and that it was unlikely that I would survive past the age of 16,” he says.

Through puberty, his condition improved dramatically, his survival no longer in question – and the former bouncer could hardly be described as “stunted.” Not only did the experience teach him to overcome adversity, it also kindled a fascination with disease – a factor that obviously fuels his passion as a scientist.

But the lousy health prognosis probably also contributed to his disdain for school and his dismissal of academia. Planning for a career was something that just wasn’t a priority.

“I almost didn’t graduate from high school. I hated school and I didn’t want to go to college,” he says.

“I almost didn’t graduate from high school. I hated school and I didn’t want to go to college.”

The big goon

He ended up learning how to repair television sets, but after a few years of doing that, he realized that TV repair wasn’t the route for him. So, he left the family ranch and moseyed to Pueblo, Colorado, to study biology and chemistry. The first couple of years didn’t go so well, until one day he wandered into the lab of Dr. Paul Kulkosky.

Glazner was curious about the goings-on and asked Kulkosky for a job. “He looked at me, thought I was some sort of a goon and said no.” So instead of research work, Glazner asked for a job washing dishes in lab.

“While I was there washing dishes, I read his papers, wrote a proposal and handed it in,” recalls Glazner. “Kulkosky said: ‘Who wrote this proposal for you?’ – because obviously a big goon like me wasn’t going to produce something like that.”

Kulkosky ended up hiring and mentoring Glazner. His career as a world-changing researcher was underway.

“Once I got into the lab, that was it. My grades became perfect – I had never had an ‘A’ before that. As soon as I started to do research, it was an epiphany for me,” he says. “It was the passion I had been looking for. After that, research was all I wanted to do.”

The missing link

Today, Glazner, a resident of Transcona, leads a team at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre looking at the relationship between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Initially, his focus was exclusively on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Through a collaboration with a colleague in England, they discovered a specific chemical that was important in both Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Now, Glazner and company are studying the link and strongly believe that people with type 2 diabetes are at a much greater risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

Even more significant, Glazner’s research could alter the course of both diseases. The chemical that they discovered stimulates the production of insulin in the brain has now been observed to have the same effect when injected into the liver. “So now we’re trying to figure out if injected into the pancreas, whether the chemical could make a person more sensitive to insulin,” explains Glazner. “It could lead to a direct treatment for diabetes.”

In experiments, laboratory mice with Alzheimer’s were crossed with mice with diabetes. The result? Both mice got healthier, providing further evidence of a chemical link. For Glazner, it’s all about conducting more research, moving to pre-clinical trials, and expecting the unexpected – because that’s where the most important discoveries are made.

“It moves where it moves. You follow the science, you don’t direct the science,” he says.

Grandpa Glazner

So while Glazner follows the science, he also follows his passion – a passion inspired, in part, from his close relationship with his now-departed grandfather.

“My grandfather was born and raised in the Ozarks during the Depression. He was probably the only person in his family who could read. He was incredibly strong and vibrant physically. Even in his 70s, after a long day in the fields he would break for dinner and then go lift weights in the barn,” says Glazner. “He was always healthy until Alzheimer’s set in and he died, about 20 years ago. I looked at his medical records and it seems that he had vascular dementia, something we now know is related to type 2 diabetes. He could have been treated and survived. Instead we were told to get his affairs in order.”

That event drove Glazner toward neurological research, and lessons from Grampa are behind his success.

“He was a great talker and storyteller. He could tell the same story three times and still make it entertaining. He taught me to be sociable and outgoing,” says Glazner, who teaches a course on writing grant proposals. “I was raised with blue collar workers and farmers and I know how to communicate with people. As a scientist, I have to be able to explain what I do so people understand it. That sort of communication helps you get grants and deliver lectures to the public.”

And it’s a public, says Glazner, that cares deeply about community and about health research. In 2000, he was offered a job in Winnipeg after accepting a position in southern California that wasn’t due to start for six months. He had been in the city finishing a project with a colleague.

“I was stunned to see how a community of this size could build a research facility like this and amazed at the level of giving,” says Glazner. “I got an offer here and was happy to stay.”

To learn more about Dr. Glazner’s research visit sbrc.ca/glazner

Dr. Gordon Glazner
Principal Investigator, Cellular Neuropathology & Neurodegeneration
Division of Neurodegenerative Disorders, St. Boniface Hospital Research
Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, University of Manitoba

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