Research Builds Molecular Profile of Proteins Linked to Alzheimer’s

In the search for a cause and cure for Alzheimer’s, it’s key to fully understand your suspects.

That’s the objective of a joint research project between the colleges of Sciences and Medicine, which is focusing on the proteins commonly found in the brains of people with the neurodegenerative disease.

Certain proteins and their shorter versions, called peptides, can cause damage to neurons when they fold or aggregate incorrectly. Physicists Bo Chen, Ph.D., and Suren Tatulian, Ph.D., are investigating one of the most toxic peptides, called Abeta, using highly sophisticated biophysical techniques. These include solid state Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (ssNMR) and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR).

The results will eventually be used to develop antibodies for immunotherapy and diagnosing Alzheimer’s.

“This information does not directly tell us how to cure the disease, but it provides crucial clues on how to design drugs to counterattack the aggregates, which may ultimately lead to a cure,” Chen said.

Chen and Tatulian tackle the toxic peptides from different sides with a common goal: unveiling their key features and their atomic makeup. The peptide samples mimic those in a diseased brain, including the molecular composition and the environmental characteristics, so the results can reasonably be compared to the peptides’ behavior in real biological tissue.

Applying the results of Chen and Tatulian’s work to real, living cells falls to Ken Teter, Ph.D., and Lucia Cilenti, Ph.D., an assistant professor of research, in the College of Medicine.

Their research looks at the proteins that are inactive in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, which could signal that they are no longer providing a protective barrier. By understanding what’s happening on the molecular level, it’s theoretically possible to prevent toxic aggregation or even reverse it.

Teter cautions that this research is years away from a cure or a cause. But these types of discoveries are pivotal first steps.

“It’s hard to work with something you know nothing about. So you start filling in the details with these types of experiments. That’s the value of basic research,” Teter said.


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