SRU researchers continue studying treatments of Alzheimer’s disease


Student doing research

Kayle Marsh, a Slippery Rock University senior chemistry major, is working in the biochemistry lab at SRU this summer as part of a grant-funded research project to study protein expression in an Alzheimer’s disease model.

July 21, 2021

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — In the last year, Kayle Marsh has gone from counting pills as a pharmacy technician to conducting research that people with Alzheimer's disease are counting on to treat this common cause of dementia. Marsh, a Slippery Rock University senior chemistry major from Kennedy, New York, still works at a local pharmacy a few hours per week, but this summer she is working full time in the biochemistry lab at SRU as part of a grant-funded, faculty-student research project.

"I like this because it's hands-on and I'm still learning new things during the summer even though I'm not in classes," Marsh said. "A lot of my classes were online in the past year (because of the pandemic) so this was a nice chance to come in and work in the lab."

Marsh is working with Ashley Loe, assistant professor of chemistry, on an ongoing project that is supported by $4,800 through SRU's Summer Collaborative Research Experience grant program. The faculty-student research team is studying ways different drugs affect cell proteins, which fold or misalign to form aggregates in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients. These plaques or tangles cause irreversible neurological damage, including neuron loss and issues with memory, thinking and behavior.

More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Although five prescription medicines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat disease symptoms that impact thinking and memory, there is no known cause or cure for Alzheimer's.

"With Alzheimer's patients, there are just so many things that go haywire and it's really hard to pinpoint what happens first," Loe said. "You need to know what is causing it in order to prevent it and treat it. What's currently on the market with these drugs is essentially affecting the symptoms, resulting in a downstream effect, which does help the patient's quality of life but then they're still going to have symptoms again and they're still going to get the nerve degeneration."

Recent hypotheses from the research community suggest that mitochondrial dysfunction is ultimately responsible for protein aggregation and the downstream consequences. Mitochondria, known as the powerhouses of the cell, stop functioning properly, which leads to an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. The SRU researchers are focusing on proteins found in the mitochondria that contain a metal ion called metalloproteins, known as mitoNEET.

Under Loe's guidance, Marsh is using cell culture, fluorescence microscopy and other analytical tools to study changes in the expression of mitoNEET upon exposure to current treatments, including rivastigmine and galantamine, which are drugs on the market approved by the FDA.

Marsh is continuing the faculty-student research that Loe conducted with Jenell Gerow, a 2020 SRU graduate with a degree in chemistry, two years ago, only Marsh is testing rivastigmine and galantamine, whereas Gerow worked with donepezil.

Marsh got involved with the research upon hearing a presentation from Loe while Marsh was taking an Intro to Research class in the fall of 2019.

"Kayle started working in the lab the second semester of her sophomore year, which is really early, and she's done a great job moving toward independence in the lab," Loe said. "Now that she has the SCORE grant, she's really able to dive deep into the research. For her senior year, she'll start presenting at conferences and sharing the results of her hard work."

Marsh already submitted and presented a poster virtually at an American Chemical Society Conference last spring, but by next year Loe and Marsh anticipate her attending a conference to present the research they are conducting this summer.

"This gives me a lot of experience that I can take with me to whatever career I decide to go into," Marsh said. "I originally wanted to go to pharmacy school but now I'm considering research as a career and this experience will help me if I decide to go graduate school."

More information about the chemistry programs at SRU is available on the department's webpage.

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