Joining the Quest for a Cure

First biomedical funding for CNU awarded to interdisciplinary Alzheimer's research group.

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A group of Christopher Newport researchers are the recipients of the 2016–17 Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award Fund, an initiative of the Virginia Center on Aging, which awards grants to researchers in Virginia to support work in different aspects of dementia, a group of diseases including Alzheimer’s, that impair cognitive function and memory.

The CNU project involves four faculty and a dozen undergraduates. “This grant gives us the opportunity to pursue important questions that will ultimately help scientists better understand Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Lisa Webb, associate professor of biochemistry and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Chemistry. The team includes:

  • Co-investigator Dr. Darlene Mitrano, assistant professor of neurobiology
  • Dr. Harold Grau, associate professor of biology
  • Dr. Dmitry Liskin, lecturer of chemistry
  • Undergraduates in chemistry; neuroscience; applied physics; and cellular, molecular and physiological biology

“It is significant because it’s the first time we’ve gotten funding like this for a biomedical problem, Webb says.”

Alzheimer’s is a particularly malign disease, and few families escape its cruelties. According to the National Institute on Aging, as many as one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. Over five million people suffer from the disease, and it is a leading cause of death in the United States – some estimates place it third – behind heart disease and cancer. As the plaques and tangled proteins that are its physiological signature spread through the brain, patients are slowly robbed of their memories and abilities, until they ultimately cannot remember loved ones or perform even the simplest of daily tasks. Fighting the disease is a priority for many, including Webb and Mitrano – and their student researchers.

“I have an uncle with Alzheimer’s, so it is very personal,” Webb says. “When you work on something that touches so many people, even though what we’re doing won’t have any effect on my uncle, it will for somebody else. It’s really important.” She says students often line up at her door asking to join her lab team. “Students come up and say, ‘I know somebody with Alzheimer’s. Do you need any help in the lab?’ They are deeply interested in this work.”

The team uses genetically altered mice to determine if the decline in cognitive function and changes in blood biochemistry present in humans with Alzheimer’s, also show in the mice. “Our model describes disease-related changes in behavior and biochemistry,” Webb says. “We study spatial memory, blood composition, sense of smell and brain structure over the life span of the mice – all of which are understudied areas.”

To collect behavioral data, the researchers use the Morris Water Maze as well as a buried food test. In the maze, which resembles a tiny hot tub, the researchers repeatedly place each mouse in water and then time how long it takes it to swim to a submerged platform and climb out. Eventually, they remove the platform and time how long the mice spend in the area where it had been. “The time decreases if their memory is intact,” Mitrano says. “That’s how we measure their spatial memory.” An increase in the time it takes to find the platform means the mice are suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s.

They chose the buried food test in order to see if they could detect in the mice with Alzheimer’s a loss of smell that has been observed in some human studies. They hide food in a cage, place a hungry mouse inside, and then time how long it takes it to find the food. Mitrano also studies the brains of the mice to see if there are any abnormalities in the olfactory bulbs as compared to normal mice. The undergraduates on the team chiefly perform these behavioral tests, running the maze and conducting the hidden food tests.

One of them, Katie Whitcomb, is a biochemistry and applied physics double major. “This work is very important,” she says. “The number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is increasing, and the disease affects not only those who suffer from it, but also their friends and families. Our work with the mice will hopefully help us better understand how the disease affects people.”

The group hopes that their study will lead to the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s patients. Mitrano says, “we’re comparing our mice to mice that are not modified at all. If we see these effects across the board, then we can’t necessarily extrapolate that to humans. But if there’s something specific to the Alzheimer’s mice, then that could set a stage for future studies by drug developers.”

Mitrano, who also has seen loved ones struggle with the degenerative condition, adds, “It’s a pervasive disease. ”We have got to just keep going at it and see if our model can help."

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