Three Virginia Tech researchers have each received money from the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases Research Award Fund, established in 1982 to spur innovative investigations into Alzheimer's disease and related disorders.

Among those receiving the 2017-18 funds are Harald Sontheimer, director of the School of Neuroscience, part of the College of Science, and director of the Center for Glial Biology in Health Disease and Cancer, part of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; and Ling Wu, a research scientist, and Bin Xu, an assistant professor, both with the Department of Biochemistry, which is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Science.

The funding was established by the Virginia General Assembly to fund research into the causes, epidemiology, diagnosis, and treatment of the disorder; public policy and the financing of care; and the social and psychological impacts of Alzheimer's and other related neurological diseases in the elderly.

Seven projects statewide were funded. Projects funded at Virginia Tech were:

Harald Sontheimer

Sontheimer will use his $45,000 one-year grant to study how the protein amyloid contributes to functional impairment of neurons within the brain. “People have thus far assumed that Alzheimer’s only affects nerve cells, but we show that it is toxic to brain-support cells called astrocyte,” Sontheimer said. “Astrocytes are involved in local regulation of blood flow matching the energy needs of nerve cells to appropriate blood flow. As the amyloid build up along blood vessels, it gets in the way of the astrocytes doing their job. The result is inadequate blood flow. This may contribute to the cognitive decline.”

Sontheimer said if his team’s hunch is true, it could serve as a “paradigm shift” in Alzheimer’s research. Research work will be carried out in labs with Institute for Creative Technology and Applied Science, with Ian Kimbrough, a post-doctorate researcher with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and instructor with the School of Neuroscience, and Tre Mills III, a doctorate researcher with the Virginia Tech Graduate School’s translational biology, medicine, and health program, assisting Sontheimer.

Sontheimer expects a follow-up National Institutes of Health grant to continue funding his research.

Ling Wu and Bin Xu

Alzheimer’s is characterized by the accumulation of two types of abnormal structures in the brain, amyloid plaques, made of a small protein called amyloid beta peptide, and neurofibrillary tangles, made of a protein called tau. To date, the majority of clinical efforts have focused on the development of drugs to target amyloid beta, efforts that have been largely unsuccessful. Wu and Xu believe that tau may be a better target for drugs designed to combat Alzheimer’s. They hope to learn more about the mechanisms behind the toxicity of this protein to the neurons and to explore how this toxicity may be inhibited.

The team will screen repurposed drugs from the National Institutes of Health's Clinical and Pharmaceutical Collection libraries of small molecules in order to identify compounds that can block the formation of tau aggregation and protect neurons from tau-induced cytotoxicity. Further tests will establish whether compounds that emerge from the screenings can protect cultured neurons from the adverse effects of extracellular tau aggregates.

Research needed

Due to a rapidly aging population and the modern sedentary lifestyle, Alzheimer’s is reaching epidemic proportions, according Wu and Xu. It is now the most expensive disease in the United States, exceeding even cancer and cardiovascular disease for the total annual cost to American society.

Awards for Sontheimer, Wu, and Xu were enhanced by a $25,000 donation from Mrs. Russell Sullivan, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in memory of her husband, who died of dementia. The award competition is administered by the Virginia Center on Aging in the School of Allied Health Professions at Virginia Commonwealth University.

This story was co-authored by Amy Painter, communications and marketing manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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