Reporter 411, 1 December 1997

Team of University ‘smart’ scientists raise Alzheimer’s hope

A series of chance discoveries launched a team of University scientists down a path that could eventually lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The research also has potential for a wide range of other medical and industrial uses, from healing wounds to sealing cracks in oil wells.

To support this work within the Centre for Self-Organising Molecular Systems (SOMS), Dr Amalia Aggeli has been awarded a four-year Royal Society/BP Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. She said the key to recent breakthroughs was the inter-disciplinary nature of the centre, where polymer physicists, biochemists, organic chemists, structural biologists, mathematicians, and those involved in medicine and food science all work together.

“We have just stumbled on the whole project really,” said Dr Aggeli, who is a molecular scientist. “But it only happened because of the inter-disciplinary environment, where people are aware of different things.”

It was by chance, for example, that she noticed how polymers created in the laboratory could form into gel. That might mean that a drug could be contained in the gel and delivered to the right part of the body, where a chemical command could turn the gel back into liquid and release the drug. Oil companies are interested in the findings because engineers could send a liquid into the fissures of an oil well and command it to set and plug any leaks.

Working as part of a team with SOMS director Professor Neville Boden, Polymer Physics Professor Tom McLeish, and Dr Sheena Radford from Biochemistry, Dr Aggeli developed self-assembling peptides. These ‘molecular tapes’ can be designed to recognise and stick to different surfaces. Such ‘smart polymers’, fully biodegradable and biocompatible, could lead to new ways of repairing skin and bone.

This week Dr Aggeli is in Japan to present a paper on this project at the first international peptide symposium.

The centre’s most recent (as yet unpublished) findings are that the self-assembling peptides created in the laboratory have a tendency to twist around each other like a rope – thereby replicating a condition found in people suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Once again, this similarity was a chance observation rather than something the team set out to look for. A key ingredient was a theoretical model for the strange self-assembly by Drs. Sasha Semenov and Irena Nyrkova in Applied Mathematics/Physics. It is early days, but the news raises hope of an eventual cure.

“We believe we can use this information to discover the forces that give rise to these abnormal structures, which interfere with the body and make people behave in crazy ways,” explained Dr Aggeli.

“We intend to find out how to destabilise the rope-like structures as a possible way of curing Alzheimer’s. For me, science has to have some practical application. This has all happened so quickly and it’s very exciting. I was in the lab until 3am yesterday.”

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