Alzheimer’s research at UND may lead to a breakthroughThe University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences is making major contributions to the global fight against Alzheimer’s disease with two prominent research studies.
By: Will Powell, Agweek
The University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences is making major contributions to the global fight against Alzheimer’s disease with two prominent research studies.
Since 2008, Saobo Lei, associate professor with UND’s Department of Basic Sciences, has been researching the mechanisms of learning and memory. Lei thinks his research will lead to better treatments for Alzheimer’s. Xuesong Chen, assistant professor with UND’s Department of Basic Sciences, has investigated the connection between HIV and Alzheimer’s since 2010. Chen collaborates on this project with Jonathan Geiger, former chair of UND’s Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Therapeutics. Lei’s project was renewed with a $1.04 million federal grant in July 2013, and Chen’s project was awarded its first $350,000, federal grant in August 2012. Chen and Geiger are currently seeking a five-year grant with more funding.
“Basically, we’re trying to figure out the mechanism involved in learning and memory, because learning and memory is involved in and related to Alzheimer’s disease,” Lei says. “We’re trying to find out what drugs can be used for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a long-term goal in the lab. Here, we focus on neurotensin, which is a peptide in the brain, and neurotensin can increase the stability of the neuron and also, it can increase learning and memory ability in animals.”
Despite the short amount of time Lei and his small staff have run their project, they are already in an experimental phase. One of Lei’s experiments involves injecting mice with drugs related to the function of neurotensin, which increases the learning memory abilities of the test subject. The test subject is run through a “mouse maze.” While this experimental method is currently unsuitable for human subjects, Lei has experienced success using it with mice.
“Any drugs that can improve learning and memory can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease because with Alzheimer’s disease, the patients suffer from memory loss. So one strategy to treat Alzheimer’s disease is to increase the memory ability of the patient, so that way, we can reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease,” Lei says.
“Initially, we just want to figure out the cellular and molecular mechanism by which neurotensin can increase the excitability of the neuron. And after we figure out the cellular mechanism, we will use this mechanism to test whether this mechanism is also working for neurotensin increase in learning and memory.”
Lei asserts he is only doing basic research at this time and the development of a marketable drug based on his neurotensin receptor agonist data would be a “long way” off.
“Hopefully, in three or four years, we can finish determination of the cellular and molecular mechanism of neurotensin in improved learning and memory, and we also hope to test the agonist for neurotensin receptor and determine if those drugs have any potential to treat Alzheimer’s disease,” Lei says.
he link to HIV
Chen’s research places a great deal of focus on the endolysosome functions of the human body when an individual is affected with HIV. According to Chen, when the human body’s endolysosome functions break down, which can happen during the course of an HIV infection, it can cause neuron cell death. Neuron cell death can contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Because the infected person, right now, has very effective antiretroviral therapy, they can live much longer. As they’re aging, and they develop this kind of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders, somehow these HIV neurocognitive disorders have these kinds of dementia-like symptoms. In the brain pathology, when these people die, quite a few of them have Alzheimer’s characteristics,” Chen says.
“We’re thinking that dysfunction in the ensosome lysome might be a common pathogenesis to both Alzheimer’s and HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders.”
The precise link between HIV, Alzheimer’s and neuro-cognitive disorders is currently elusive, Chen says. But, if Chen, Geiger and their staff are able to determine the link, it will be of great benefit to Alzheimer’s patients.
“The ultimate goal of our research is to design a therapeutic strategy. For example, if we can somehow correct the endolysosome dysfunction, we could delay, prevent, or reverse the Alzheimer’s Disease pathology,” Chen says.
Lei, Chen, and Geiger plan to publish their findings in various medical journals. Publication will allow Alzheimer’s researchers around the world to incorporate UND’s research into their own projects.