While some might think of copper as just the metal that makes up pennies, pipes or electrical equipment, the element is quite important to the functions of the human body and maintains healthy bones, blood cells, nerves and immune functions.
Assistant chemistry professor Tai-Yen Chen is researching the link between copper protein modules in the brain and Alzheimer’s disease using his $1.9 million award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
“After doing lots of research,” Chen said, “we found that the Alzheimer’s disease has some very interesting metal misregulation phenomena, which we believe can pull some new insights to this disease.”
Scientists have found that people with Alzheimer’s have unusually high levels of copper in beta-amyloid plaques. These plaques are abnormal clusters of protein fragments that build up between the brain’s nerve cells and could be a possible cause of Alzheimer’s.
“People study the Alzheimer’s disease for over hundreds of years and in the recent years previous people think that beta (plaques) are the cause of Alzheimer’s disease,” Chen said.
Chen’s hypothesis says that Alzehimer’s has poor capability of maintaining these copper levels in cells, and there can be differences in how neurons handle the metal.
These differences become more noticeable when a subject gets older, and the cells’ lack of capability maintaining copper can cause the beta-amyloid plaques, possibly causing Alzheimer’s disease, according to his team’s research
“We want to figure out how cells regulate or manipulate the copper inside them to maintain the optimum copper level,” Chen said in a news release Eurekalert,
There are some big companies that try to develop drugs to kill or remove those plaques, but clinical trials in the past five years have failed, Chen said.
Chen said that members of society can often hope for scientists to know the cause and the cure, so it brings a shock when these trials don’t provide either.
In Chen’s laboratory, there are many different kinds of technology that allow him and his team to study the disease in human related neurons directly.
“The methodology we have can apply to many other thesis as well, so depending how much we have achieved in five years will determine what we do with the next ten years,” Chen said. “This research is a very long time research, and it is pretty big picture, something that we want to accomplish in the next ten years.”
Chen found interest in this research because of his wife, a neuropathologist whose grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease when he was almost 90.
“We have some family members who experience this, and it’s not fun at all,” Chen said.
Though for now, Chen’s research is focused on how cells regulate metals and are related to neurons in the disease. Chen said that he and his colleagues can change the research directly in the future depending on their findings.
“The grant I got is actually not funding a specific project, it’s more based on what I have achieved previously,” said Chen. “It’s a high-risk project, but when they believe in you because you have already demonstrated enough achievement in the past, it is more that they are funding the person more than funding the specific project.”