KU, Harvard researchers team up to look for Alzheimer’s treatment clues

Chris Gamblin, associate professor of molecular biosciences at KU.

Chris Gamblin, a molecular bioscientist at Kansas University, studies proteins involved in Alzheimer’s disease in test tubes. Mel Feany, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School, models Alzheimer’s in the brains of fruit flies.

So when Feany spoke at KU last year, an idea to join forces was born. Now, with the help of a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant, they’re combining their expertise in hopes of pointing the way to revolutionary treatments for people with Alzheimer’s.

“We’ve just agreed to kind of split the project up and work collaboratively to combine our strengths,” said Gamblin, an associate professor of molecular biosciences.

Their project, funded by a four-year grant, focuses on a protein called tau that exists inside brain cells. It’s one of two proteins chiefly associated with Alzheimer’s. (The other, beta amyloid, forms plaques outside of sufferers’ brain cells and tends to draw more attention from researchers and drug companies, Gamblin says.)

In the brain cells of people with Alzheimer’s, tau folds into “tangles” and accumulates. But, Gamblin said, researchers disagree about what exactly the tau does that eventually causes those cells to die: Is the problem that the tau doesn’t perform its normal job, providing support for structures called microtubules? Or is the accumulation of the tau tangles damaging the cell or impeding other processes?

The answers to such questions could point the way toward treatments that would actually fight what’s happening in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers — something that’s not yet been done.

Such treatments could also help people with other, rarer neurological disorders related to the tau protein.

“If we can figure some of those things out, it could be paradigm-shifting,” Gamblin said.

Together, Gamblin and Feany will examine different mutations of tau. In his lab in Lawrence, Gamblin will study how those proteins work on a molecular level. And his lab is shipping DNA to Feany at Harvard, where she’ll use it to observe how the mutated proteins affect the brains and behavior of flies and mice.

Both said that their idea to combine their two sets of skills drew praise from NIH officials evaluating their grant application.

Feany said she wasn’t aware of another such collaboration between scientists in different fields to examine this problem.

“We think there’s really a huge potential in getting novel insights into how these diseases work,” Feany said.

They’re hoping to solve an overlooked question, Gamblin said, with huge implications. Somewhere between 5 million and 7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and the country’s population is growing older every day.

“We’re trying to do the hard experiments that have kind of been ignored,” Gamblin said.