Working to Cure Alzheimer’s – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Working to Cure Alzheimer’s

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease today is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.  Joining the efforts of hundreds of researchers worldwide trying to develop new treatments for the disease are Alan van Giessen, assistant professor of chemistry, and students Isabel Olson ’09 and Rebecca Borsuk ’11. They are working to simulate the short proteins, called peptides, that many scientists believe cause Alzheimer’s.

“We are running simulations looking at the formation of beta sheets, which are a particular configuration of peptide molecules adopted by the peptides that are thought to cause Alzheimer’s,” says van Giessen, who has been working on this research since 2002. “Specifically, we are looking at how these peptides aggregate and how they change from their native state (the biologically active one) to a mis-folded beta-sheet structure (which is thought to cause nerve damage).”  While they are not yet at the stage where they can say the simulations are detailed enough to be considered an accurate picture of the Alzheimer’s proteins (called amyloid-beta), they are a simplified version of them, he notes.

Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells and worsens over time. The memory loss and decline of intellectual capacity (including ability to perform simple tasks and take care of oneself) affects all aspects of patients’ lives, as well as the lives of their families.

Alan van Giessen

The HWS team is trying to understand “mis-folding,” a key issue in Alzheimer’s. Van Giessen explains proteins (and peptides) in living organisms adopt what’s called their “native state,” which is the biologically active configuration of the protein.  In Alzheimer’s, for some as yet unknown reason, these peptides do not adopt their native state, but rather something causes them adopt this beta-sheet configuration.  This is called “mis-folding.”  

Olson notes they are using computer simulations which are not only more convenient than working in a wet lab, but enable them “To get more theoretical results faster, plug in more variables, and control everything much more easily.” The information they find could be influential in the prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s, which the Alzheimer’s Association anticipates currently affects 5.3 million Americans.

“We just got started,” says Borsuk. “We have been spending most of our time learning the background information that we need to understand the simulations we are going to make. We have been reading a lot of journals.” Some of the journals focus on the proteins they are studying, which will help the students understand and anticipate what they are going to see while working with them. The other journals and background information have to do with Alzheimer’s, and will help the researchers to spot something that might open the door to prevention of the disease.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the scientific community about what exactly causes the disease, and we are looking at one possible cause,” explains van Giessen.

Eventually Olson hopes “To fully understand the data that is produced in the computer simulations,” and how it affects the overall goal of the research. Borsuk agrees, commenting that “Computer simulation is not something that I would learn in a classroom.” Computer simulation is becoming more widely used and accepted in the scientific world, as programs and computers become more accurate, and data about simulations becomes more available.

While this is Olson’s third summer interning for the HWS chemistry department, it is her first in the physical chemistry lab, where computer simulations are used more often. “I had interned with Professor Walter Bowyer, doing more wet lab research, and last semester I took a physical chemistry class with Assistant Professor Alan van Giessen.”

Borsuk, a chemistry major, is considering a health profession or a Ph.D., perhaps in pharmaceuticals. She is a dancer and member of Koshare, the dance group on campus, having danced at the faculty and senior dance concerts. She is also an active member of Campus Greens and the editor of the Public Affairs Journal.

Olson would like to be a high school chemistry teacher. “However,” she says, “I still am considering getting my Ph.D. This summer will help me decide if that is what I want to do, and if so, what I want to research for it.”

Olson and van Giessen are featured in the photos above.