The Next Generation of Alzheimer’s Research(ers)

By May 21, 2020Commentary

Jamie Kamel

Jamie Kamel (left) is an 8th Grader at Corona del Mar Middle School who is interested in genetics research and CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology. As part of service credit for Boy Scouts, he interviewed Amanda McQuade, REMIND Co-Chair and Doctoral Candidate, to learn about progress in Alzheimer’s research from the perspective of an up-and-coming scientist:

Kamel: How did you become interested in Alzheimer’s disease? How did you get where you are today?

McQuade: When I was young, I didn’t know I wanted to study Alzheimer’s disease. I first became interested in genetics and biology when I went to a summer program for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in 7th grade. At the camp, I did molecular biology and found it very interesting that we could make bacteria glow! That’s when I decided I wanted to be a scientist and get a PhD so that I could do fun science experiments all the time. However, I also knew I wanted to do something related to human health. In college, I started taking classes in neuroscience and became very interested in learning how the brain works, which is what I do now. I study how the brain works by learning what happens when the brain stops working like in Alzheimer’s disease. And of course, this disease affects so many people that it’s important to have scientists working to find a treatment!

Kamel: How would you describe microglia to someone without extensive scientific knowledge? How are microglia important to Alzheimer’s disease research?

Amanda McQuade working with stem cells in Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones’ lab at UCI

McQuade: So, the brain has multiple types of cells. The most well-known of these cells are neurons. Another type of cell is called the microglia. Unlike other brain cells, microglia come from the same type of cells as the immune system cells and have immune functions like cleaning the brain and protecting it from disease. However, since they’re in the brain, they have more jobs to perform like protecting the connections between neurons and keeping the brain in homeostasis, or a healthy stability.

Scientists learned that microglia are important in Alzheimer’s disease when they did a study on the DNA of Alzheimer’s patients and found out that the mutations associated with disease occur in genes related to microglia and the immune system. So, now we know these cells are associated with Alzheimer’s, but we don’t know how exactly yet. That’s what scientists are still working on- figuring out how the immune system and microglia interact with Alzheimer’s disease.

Kamel: How are new technologies, such as CRISPR, being used to study microglia and Alzheimer’s disease?

McQuade: CRISPR has shot science forward. It has allowed us to study individual genes. One thing CRISPR is able to do is remove and insert individual genes. If we figure out that a mutation is linked to a certain disease, we can use CRISPR to remove it and study what happens with or without that mutation or that entire gene. By looking one by one at the genes that change risk for a disease, we can discover their function and find out what is really going on with Alzheimer’s at the smallest level and then use that knowledge to treat the disease.

Kamel: How quickly are researchers making progress with Alzheimer’s?

McQuade: Researchers are definitely making progress with Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, we don’t have much in terms of effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease yet, despite intense research. There are treatments that can help patients with cognitive symptoms, but only for a little while – we still can’t stop the disease. Up until the past 10 years, scientists have primarily focused on one particular protein known to build up in Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have found ways to clear that protein from the brain, but these treatments are still being tested in clinical trials. Now, scientists are also focusing on new and different ways to help with the disease, like looking at microglia for example. Even if we don’t find a cure immediately, the fact that scientists are now branching out and looking at different things is very helpful. It gives us a better chance of finding a solution that will work.

Kamel: Based on current knowledge and growth of the subject, do you think that we might be able to have a treatment or something of the sorts in our lifetimes?

McQuade: There is a chance that we might find something that will lead to a treatment in our lifetime. The hard part is that even if we do find something useful today, it still has to go through years of clinical trials before it can be used to make sure the drug will not harm people or have unintended side effects. Also, one of the things that makes it so hard to study Alzheimer’s disease is that it is a disease that takes a long time to develop; it’s not like a fast-moving cancer. Therefore, clinical trials for Alzheimer’s take a lot longer.

One thing that will be super helpful in finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease more quickly is using biomarkers, which are proteins in blood or spinal fluids that indicate someone might be in early stages of disease. We can use these biomarkers to check if someone has Alzheimer’s before they have any symptoms. This will help us test our treatments earlier so that we have a better chance to stop the disease before it gets too far along. It is an exciting time to be involved in Alzheimer’s research, and we’re learning more, more quickly than ever before.