MELBOURNE, FLA.—The second $50,000 grant in two years was just given to Florida Institute of Technology from the Community Foundation of Brevard’s Kenneth R. Finken and Dorothy Hallam Finken Endowment Fund for research into the cause and cure of Alzheimer’s disease. The grant will support the work of Shaohua Xu, associate professor of biological sciences, who is using atomic force microscopy to test his unique theory of the origins of Alzheimer’s disease.
Kenneth Finken was a graduate of Columbia University and held four patents; he had retired from the Government Electronic Systems division of Harris Corporation.
Gary Lang, president of the Community Foundation of Brevard, said, “This is an example of individual philanthropy at its best. The Community Foundation of Brevard is proud of its association with the family and their special support for this very worthwhile research program.”
Despite decades of research there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease because its fundamental cause remains unknown. In the brain cells of Alzheimer’s victims, molecules of a normal protein, called “tau,” do something very abnormal; they join together to form tangled fibers that the cell cannot remove.
The fibers accumulate until essential substances cannot move through the cell and the cell dies. As brain cells are lost, memory and mental functioning deteriorate. But why do proteins suddenly begin to stick together? The prevailing theory is that normal proteins are first changed in shape, to an “infectious” form, in which the molecules link together to form a chain.
“From our own observations, we believe this theory is incorrect,” said Xu. He began developing his theory in 1997, when he was studying mad cow disease at the University of Chicago; he was the first to use atomic force microscopy to actually see how the individual molecules join together.
“We found that the protein molecules first stick together to form spherical particles, far too small to see with an ordinary microscope, which then join like beads on a string to form the filaments that choke the cell,” explained Xu. The phenomena he observed were unknown in biology, but Xu looked beyond the usual limits of the life sciences and found an identical phenomenon, not in biology but in another field called colloidal chemistry.
The process we have observed closely resembles the behavior of colloids, mixtures like milk or ink in which tiny particles are suspended in a fluid,” says Xu. “Our theory is based on colloid science.”
The theory may provide an explanation not only for Alzheimer’s and mad cow disease, but also for Parkinson’s disease and several other diseases characterized by similar abnormal clusters. If Xu’s theory is correct, it may be possible to halt the disease with drugs that prevent the particles of protein from joining into chains. His theory goes to the heart of this process.
The grant will make it possible to add critical equipment to the laboratory for producing and purifying human proteins, using genetically modified bacteria. This will allow Xu and his team to identify chemicals that accelerate the formation of the protein fibers, which may cause some people to develop the disease. The team will also be able to screen potential drug molecules that might inhibit the fiber formation process. The grant will also fund materials and supplies critical for the research and will support a graduate student researcher for the team.
Xu’s research is conducted at Florida Tech and the Space Life Sciences Laboratory, a unique research facility at Kennedy Space Center (KSC,) operated by the State of Florida in partnership with NASA and Florida universities. At KSC he uses a state-of-the-art atomic force microscope, one of the few in Florida, to study the mechanism of Alzheimer’s.
Dan Woodard, a KSC physician, was the first medical doctor to review the research. He says, “Shaohua’s theory is revolutionary; his evidence is overwhelming. The medical implications are beyond anything in my experience.” NASA physician David Tipton, chief of the Aerospace Medicine and Environmental Health Branch at KSC, agrees. He said, “This could be the most important biomedical discovery ever made at Kennedy Space Center.”
Working with Xu are former astronaut Sam Durrance, now a professor of physics and space sciences at Florida Tech, and a team of talented graduate and undergraduate student researchers.
PHOTO: In the Florida Tech Board of Trustees Dinging Room, pictured from left:
Gary Lang, president of the Community Foundation of Brevard ; Florida Tech President Anthony J. Catanese;
Dale Dettmer, president of the Florida Tech Board of Trustees; Shaohua Xu, Florida Tech biological
sciences research professor; and Bill Harris, president of the Community Foundation of Brevard Board of Trustees