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Shining New Light: HornRaiser Donors Help in the Fight Against Alzheimer’s

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“Our group in the Department of Chemistry has made a discovery that may lead to a new approach to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

With that intriguing declaration, Professor Stephen Martin launched a HornRaiser campaign this year that in short order raised more than twice its goal. Small wonder — with a debilitating disease such as Alzheimer’s, any ray of hope is cause for celebration. Martin has given the world something to celebrate.

In recent years, Martin’s lab has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to identify new compounds that might lead to treatments for a variety of diseases. “We have been interested in finding better ways to make complex molecules that occur in nature — especially those that exhibit useful biological activity,” he says.

“We discovered one group of novel compounds that may have the power to go after neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. This is an exciting finding because no new drug for this disease has been approved since 2003.”

The only drugs available merely treat some symptoms of dementia, not the underlying causes, and these drugs only work for a subset of patients. As Alzheimer’s and related dementia cases grow globally, the world is in desperate need of new and more effective therapeutic approaches that may ultimately lead to a cure.

This particular approach started with a tiny worm. Martin and Jim Sahn, a researcher on his team, wondered whether the molecules they had developed could target a neural receptor not previously associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

C_elegans model worm

Professor Stephen Martin’s team used a novel worm model of Alzheimer’s disease to screen potential compounds for treatment.

Aiming to find out, they worked with Professor Jonathan Pierce-Shimomura and his coworker Luisa Scott in the Department of Neuroscience to screen their compounds in a type of worm called C. elegans.

Under Martin’s direction, they found that some compounds did in fact reduce neurodegeneration in a worm model of Alzheimer’s disease. This was an astounding discovery, but it was just the beginning.

Although simple worms are useful for screening, Martin and Sahn wanted to test their compound in an industry-accepted animal model for the disease. They were thrilled when mice treated with the compound had significantly better cognition than untreated Alzheimer’s disease animals.

Subsequent research showed that the compound did not appear to have any adverse effects in healthy mice when they were administered a dose 10 times as great as the initial dose that worked to enhance cognition in the Alzheimer’s mice. This was significant because it showed that the compound is well tolerated in animals.

So it works in worms and mice. How about people?

“It will take a lot more work to find out,” Martin says. “But if we’re right about this, we could be on the brink of a completely new way to treat Alzheimer’s disease with something that big pharmaceutical companies haven’t yet tried.”

At a crossroads with his team’s findings, Martin turned to HornRaiser to share the results and, he hoped, attract some funding to perform more studies. Additional study results will help make a compelling case to granting agencies such as the NIH and various foundations that support research in this area, as well as companies interested in investing in a promising new approach to tackling Alzheimer’s.

Professor Stephen Martin and June Waggoner

Martin visits with June Waggoner, a longtime supporter of his research who contributed to this year’s HornRaiser campaign.

As news of the HornRaiser campaign spread through social media, dozens of individuals from near and far stepped forward, many with gifts in the $25 to $250 range.

Encouraged by the outpouring of support, the Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease contributed nearly $4,500, enough to push past the campaign’s $15,000 goal. Austin’s Edith Royal says her late husband would be proud to support Martin’s work.

“Our goal is to be part of the team by doing what we can, when we can, to help those who are working to make great advances in understanding this disease,” she says.

June Waggoner of Houston, similarly inspired, pledged a whopping $25,000 to the effort, bringing the total amount raised to $40,315 from 72 donors. Every donation, no matter its size, propels the work forward.

“We all want to help eradicate this horrible disease,” says Waggoner, who with her late husband endowed the M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Regents Chair in Chemistry, which Martin holds. “And Steve’s work holds such promise. There’s no way I was going to sit on the sidelines for such an exciting project.”

Follow updates on Martin’s work, or donate directly to support his research.

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Credits: iStockPhoto; College of Natural Sciences; Kelsey Evans

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