Vanderbilt scientists look to alpacas to possibly cure Alzheimer’s, Autism and certain cancers


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — From the bench to the farm and back again; a small group in middle Tennessee is making big scientific efforts.

Those involved? A farm owner, scientists, a boy with autism, his mother and alpacas. Though they all have many differences, they’re all looking to alpacas to improve human health.

The alpacas sit on a farm in Waverly. Randy Litton owns the land, the alpacas are owned by a team of Vanderbilt University researchers.

Ben Spiller and Bryan Wadzinski, both Associate Professors of Pharmacology at Vanderbilt, are using the alpaca’s unique antibodies to further understand the function and potentially regulate the specific enzyme PPP2R5D, which has been linked to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers.

“When you have someone you love and you cannot change their situation but you can help somebody else change theirs, that is why they do this,” Litton said. That’s why I help them with the alpacas.” Litton, who lost his son to cancer, says he hopes nobody ever has to go through what his son endured, ever again.

“When it came down to him passing that’s when I decided to do something other than complain about my life,” Litton said and it’s why he opened his farm for Vanderbilt scientists to study the alpacas.

But for now, the group’s efforts are tied mostly to Jordan’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder caused by alterations in the PPP2R5D gene.

“We don’t know at this point how the mutation develops into the disease so this ideally better allow us to understand that and then develop new drug therapies that may or may not be antibody-based,” Spiller said.

“I love that someone immediate is fighting for us,” Kim Wilson said. Wilson’s son, Asa, was diagnosed with Jordan’s Syndrome –and she’s hopeful Spiller and Wadzinski can do something for her son.

I would love for them to fix the mutation for us,” Wilson said. “Life would be easier if Asa could talk, life would be easier, if you know, we could live a normal boring life.”

Though they may be months, even years, away from a breakthrough,
this group is strongly committed to changing and saving lives.

“I’ve been doing research for 25 plus years and can’t think of another project that I’ve been more excited enthusiastic or motivated for than this project,” Wadzinski said.

The Vanderbilt team regularly visits the alpacas for blood samples, other times they shear them for fur that can be used to knit soft hats for cancer patients and they’re hoping to soon sell other items to help fund research for Jordan’s Syndrome. 

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