TAMPA — The University of South Florida's Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, until now known mostly for research, will soon open the doors to a center that will provide complete diagnosis and treatment of the memory-robbing disease.
Patients will have access to new brain-scanning technology. Concerned family members can bring in loved ones to find out whether they can drive safely or live in their homes independently. And special waiting areas for families will make it more comfortable to bring young children along for a series of medical appointments that can last much of the day.
Byrd officials see the new Center for Memory CARE — Clinical Assessment, Research and Education — as a milestone toward building a reputation for patient care in addition to the research it has been conducting for eight years.
The vast majority of people with memory problems receive care close to home through their primary doctors. It can be difficult for family members to transport dementia patients long distances, and given the dire diagnosis, many might not see much point in trying new therapies.
So the next question for Byrd's center in North Tampa is this: Will people go there?
"The hope is that people will come from miles to get here, " said Dr. Amanda Smith, the institute's medical director.
The Byrd Institute sees about 3,000 patients a year, offering services scattered throughout the USF campus, and hopes to triple that figure. Smith says more than 50,000 people in the Tampa Bay area have the disease.
Byrd CEO David Morgan said expanding the institute's clinical functions — and putting them under one roof — will benefit patients and their caregivers, as well as research.
"Research is not only in a lab with cells or models," he said. "One of the most important aspects is to have a wide range of patients that you can test. It's the only real way to tell if a treatment is going to help."
Byrd researchers have had success over the years in treating mice that have been specially bred to exhibit Alzheimer's symptoms. But not one of the treatments has yet been successful in humans.
There is no known cure for the disease, which afflicts more than 5 million Americans, and will affect far more as the population ages. Medicines such as the popular Aricept treat only symptoms, they don't slow the disease's progression.
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This past Thursday, Byrd officials showed off the $3.5 million center, paid for through donations, state matching funds and $500,000 from USF.
Among the 14,173-square-foot facility's features:
• A $1.3 million positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, which can provide a more accurate Alzheimer's/dementia diagnosis. Officials hope to use it soon to identify the presence of the disease years before symptoms start to appear.
• A fully functioning "apartment" that can help test patients' ability to perform tasks such as laundry and cooking.
• A driving simulator to help determine whether a patient can safely operate a motor vehicle.
There's also a resource library, numerous treatment areas and a sprawling general waiting area called the Great Room, where families can relax. There's also a sound-proof waiting room for children who sometimes accompany families.
The first patient appointment is scheduled for Dec. 1.
USF trustee and Byrd Institute board chairwoman Sherrill Tomasino toured the facility last week. Her father, William, died of Alzheimer's in 2004. Her 92-year-old mother, Ruth, also has the disease and is in an assisted-living facility.
Tomasino, who remembers shuttling her father in his wheelchair to specialists, said it would have been easier if the CARE center was open back then.
"It's so beautiful," she said during the tour.
The center also impressed a leading expert in the early detection of the disease, Dr. William Klunk of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who visited the center Thursday.
Klunk said the center "is likely to quickly become the standard for and envy of other centers across the country."
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Byrd officials acknowledge one challenge they face will be getting primary care doctors to refer patients to the center.
"We have to convince them that one visit by their patients isn't going to take away their business," Morgan said.
Klunk knows the challenge. As co-director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh, he often meets with physician groups to talk about what his center offers.
He said most doctors are only vaguely aware of the center. "I tell them this will help you help your patients," he said.
The Byrd Institute is also hiring a marketing professional to get the word out, Morgan said.
"We need to find ways to get the general community to understand they have a jewel in their back yard," he said.
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322. For the latest in health news, visit tampabay.com/health