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Source: MIL-OSI Submissions
Source: University of Canterbury

Current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can help manage symptoms but are unable to slow the progression of this devastating disease. With the assistance of a $300,000 Fast-Start grant from the 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau, a University of Canterbury (UC) biochemist is seeking to unravel the molecular interactions driving Alzheimer’s disease. Her work could pave the way to new and more effective therapies.

As our population ages, rates of Alzheimer’s disease continue to rise. It is the most common form of dementia and a leading cause of death worldwide, yet so far solutions to slow its progression have proved elusive.

That’s largely because knowledge about the mechanisms that underlie the disease is thin on the ground.

Now UC lecturer in Biological Sciences Dr Vanessa Morris hopes to shed more light on interactions taking place at the molecular level to better understand the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. The crucial importance of her research has been recognised with the award of a 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau Fast-Start grant.

Two hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease are abnormal clumping of the ‘amyloid-beta’ protein around brain cells and inflammation of brain tissue. These two physical changes also have a genetic link to the TREM2 gene, with mutations on that gene being one of the strongest identified risk factors to date for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

With the grant, Dr Morris will apply molecular and biophysical techniques to study how ‘amyloid-beta’ protein clumps interact with TREM2 and how disease-linked mutations on that gene affect that interaction. She will use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to closely study protein interactions at the molecular level.

“This work will establish crucial information on the molecular pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, providing targets for the development of therapies to block harmful interactions to treat Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr Morris.

Her research mentor for this promising project is UC Biochemistry Professor Renwick Dobson.

In November, funding of $6.54 million was awarded for a total of 12 UC-led research projects from the 2019 Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau. UC Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Wright hailed the grants, saying they recognised UC as a world-class research-led teaching and learning university.