Virginia Tech scientists are working to pinpoint why people with diabetes are prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease.

“Once we understand this interaction better, we will test specific compounds we recently discovered that could inhibit diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Bin Xu, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate.

Amylin, a signaling protein made by the pancreas, is likely a novel contributor, according to Xu, who is also affiliated with the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery, the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center, and Center for Gerontology.

In people with Type 2 diabetes, amylin is often not well regulated, and hyper-secretion of amylin is common in individuals with pre-diabetes, according to Xu. This signaling molecule is easily able to self-associate and form deleterious aggregates. Toxic aggregates deposit in the pancreas and can also circulate through the body to the heart, kidneys and the brain and cause harm to these tissues.

Xu and his team are interested in how amylin interacts with pancreatic cells and neuronal cells. They initiated their work in 2015 with funding from Virginia Center on Aging and will now extend and expand their study in a diabetic rat model with funding from a recently awarded Commonwealth Health Research Board grant.

Other Virginia Tech members of the research team include David Bevan, a professor of biochemistry, and Ling Wu, a research scientist in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Another collaborator is Shijun Zhang, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“This study is important and exciting not only because of the diseases being studied but also because we are using a multi-pronged approach that combines experimental and computational methods across scales ranging from molecules to animals,” said Bevan.

Obesity-related Type 2 Diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease are pressing health problems in the Commonwealth of Virginia, nationally and globally.

Nationwide, about 29.1 million people have diabetes, and 1 out of 4 people do not know they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, and one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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