In this 21st Century Chemist profile, Georgia Institute of Technology chemist Stefan France describes his work designing "neuro-protective" molecules that he hopes might be used to prevent or slow the effects of diseases such as Alzheimer's in patients' brains.
Georgia Tech Chemist Designs Molecules That May Stop or Slow Effects of Alzheimer's
TOM COSTELLO, reporting:
Stefan France is a world traveler, fascinated by exotic cultures and new medicines from around the globe.
STEFAN FRANCE: The thing that I really love about traveling especially is the local culture. Especially the local, you know, folk medicine aspects where they are using this herb or this grass or whatever and trying to understand, okay, what compound is in there.
COSTELLO: France is an assistant professor of chemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology and funded by the National Science Foundation. He's designing and building new molecules based on the ones found in nature, a process called organic synthesis.
FRANCE: Organic means, the chemistry of carbon, and synthesis is basically taking, simple molecules and actually piecing them together to more complex molecules, all based on carbon.
COSTELLO: These new, more complex, carbon-based molecules could be used to make new medicine for fighting disease. To find out if these new molecules will work as designed, France collaborates with biologists who test how they will respond to fighting disease. It's similar to the work of a medicinal chemist at a pharmaceutical company, where chemists work together with biologists to design and test potential new drugs.
FRANCE: We’re interested in making molecules that have some type of therapeutic activity and the molecules can be small molecules or large molecules and what we’re looking at is anything from anti-cancer activity to anti-Parkinson’s to anti-Alzheimer’s activity.
COSTELLO: Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are neurodegenerative diseases, diseases that destroy parts of the brain that control memory and the body's ability to move by slowly breaking down and killing nerve cells. According to the National Institute of Aging, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. France and his team are designing molecules that could prevent diseases like Alzheimer's from spreading in the brain.
FRANCE: There are several compounds that we’ve been working on that have shown neuro-protective activity. And so we’re expanding those studies a little bit more to include some new compounds as well as some known compounds.
COSTELLO: To understand what France means by "Neuro-protective activity," let's take a look at what happens inside the brain of an Alzheimer's patient. Abnormal clusters of protein fragments, called plaques and tangles, build up inside and between nerve cells. Over time, the number of plaques and tangles increases, blocking information from traveling between nerves, which ultimately kills the nerve cells. As these cells begin to die, the brain shrinks and memory and motor skills, what controls the body's motion, are lost.
FRANCE: What we’re trying to do is look at how do you protect the cells. At it’s base level, how do you protect the cells from dying.
COSTELLO: These new molecules could be engineered to prevent cells from dying by allowing information to pass between nerve cells. Not only could these new molecules be engineered to fight diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, they could also be designed to be less toxic and have fewer side effects.
FRANCE: We’re still early in the game where we’re doing a lot of the basic science, making the new structures and starting to look at what kind of activities compounds have.
COSTELLO: France says he's still many years away from bringing potential drug therapies to the market. In the meantime, he continues designing and engineering new molecules that may one day improve health around the world.
FRANCE: There's always a need for medicine and new therapeutics to fight any kind of disease. So it's important for my students to know that there is a place for them and the work they do and the time they spend in terms of making the world better.
BALTIMORE — Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are growing tiny replicas of the human brain to help the study of neurological diseases in a trend many hope could lead to better treatments and even cures for some of the most debilitating illnesses.
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