SUN CITY, Ariz. — Whether the call comes in during business hours or the middle of the night, Sarah Scott’s mission is the same: Harvest tissue samples from donated human organs as soon as possible after a donor dies.
“Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only days someone isn’t on call 24/7,” said Scott, a pathology technician with Banner Sun Health’s Brain and Body Donation Program. “We could all end up here, celebrating New Year’s Eve together.”
Based in this retirement community, where close to 2 percent of the population has signed up to donate, the program secures a high-quality stock of human brain and body tissue that researchers say could lead to breakthroughs on diseases of the aged such as Alzheimer’s.
Scott’s goal is to start collecting samples within three hours of death, the average time for the program’s autopsies. Around the world, the average time is around 12 hours, according to Dr. Thomas Beach, the program’s director.
“The earlier you get the brain out, the more things you’re able to reliably study,” Beach said. “This bank is known not for its quantity but for the quality of the brains because we get them so soon after death.”
After a donor dies, the Brain and Body Donation Program receives a call to come retrieve the body. Technicians set to work taking tissue samples from the brain and other organs and freeze them as soon as they can to preserve the tissue, Beach said.
The program started in Sun City, one of the country’s first retirement communities, because its founder, Dr. Joseph Rogers, was convinced a cure for Alzheimer’s would come from studying diseased organs, Beach said.
Dr. Eric Reiman, a Phoenix brain imaging researcher, said new treatments for Alzheimer’s and other diseases could be discovered in Arizona because of the high quality of the tissue samples.
“We have made the case … that the scientific road to a world without Alzheimer’s would travel through Arizona,” said Reiman, director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium, a collaborative effort among the state’s universities, hospitals and research centers.
Advocacy groups like the Alzheimer’s Association also recognize the importance of the gift people make by agreeing to donate their brains and bodies to scientific research, according to Deborah Schaus, executive director of the Desert Southwest Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“The donation is very helpful in that scientists need to have brain tissue to examine as we’re striving to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease,” Schaus said.
In addition to the fast pace of tissue removal, the program also follows its donors as they age, a rare quality among brain and body banks, Beach said. Researchers at sites across Arizona do annual checkups on donors and typically follow a donor for six years, starting at age 78, he said.
The brain bank not only includes donors with aging diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s but also donors with no evidence of disease. The waiting list for “normal” donors has 500 volunteers, as the bank can only follow a certain number of patients because of the cost – approximately $30,000 per donor – and intensity of the annual checkups, Beach said.
Investigators from around the world can request tissue from the bank for their studies.
“That’s probably why people say if our own scientists don’t find the cause or cure, it’s fairly likely that someone else will find it using our brains because we share it so much around the world,” Beach said.
Because of this willingness to work with researchers across the globe who are committed to the same end goal of advancing research on aging diseases, Reiman said the brains of Arizona donors are all the more important.
“If a transformational difference in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease is not made by an Arizona researcher, it’s still likely to be made in the brain of an Arizona volunteer,” he said.
For Scott, the pathology technician, trying to make that difference requires being on call for one month at a time, three times per year. She said the job requires her to rearrange her life a bit, but the end goal is well worth it.
“Alzheimer’s is such a debilitating disease,” said Scott, whose grandmother had Alzheimer’s. “To be even a small part of something great to help Alzheimer’s patients would be fantastic.”