Resident's research may help future Alzheimer's patients

08/02/2007
By Used with permission by Town Online/Community Newspaper Company. By Cheryl Lecesse / Staff Writer

Thomas Shea, a Billerica resident and professor of Biological Sciences at UMASS Lowell, has received a grant to conduct research and testing that may provide Alzheimer's Disease sufferers a future option. He will be working to develop methods that stop folate deficiency, thus slowing down the disease's process.

The Alzheimer's Association, through its Massachusetts chapter in Cambridge, awarded Shea the three year, $240,000 grant-the largest and longest one the organization gives.

"It was very competitive," he said.

Shea has received 13 grants to study Alzheimer's since he began studying the disease 20 years ago after his first look at nerve cells, called neurons, of those who had suffered from it. Neurons have long extensions called axons. Axons act like telephone wires, allowing neurons to "talk" to each other. Inside each axon are fibers that hold it up. When something goes wrong these axons break down, similar to down telephone lines in a storm, and cause neurons to die.

Neurons die progressively, like telephone poles going down one by one. As each neuron dies, the disease advances.

"Eventually the whole trunk line is down," he said, adding that the key is finding a way to stop neurons from dying.

This way has finally been found.

Research has shown that nerve cells need the vitamin folate throughout a person's life in order to continue to function properly.

"Lots of people don't eat enough," Shea said, adding that the body can't produce it. "If you have a folate deficiency, your neurons are weaker and more predisposed to Alzheimer's Disease."

Unfortunately, folate deficiency is not just a dietary disorder. Shea said everyone has a different enzyme that uses it, affecting its amount in the system.

"You could have this problem even if you eat enough folate," he said.

Shea has worked with other scientists to develop a treatment that will counteract folate deficiency. Taken like a vitamin pill, it would even benefit a person who has moderately advanced Alzheimer's.

"We can't reverse the process," he said, adding that the treatment would be able to stop it.

The grant will fund pre-clinical testing on genetically engineered mice, each missing certain enzymes that use folate and protect neurons. Scientists will administer each a drug to compensate for an enzyme's absence. The mice will be tested to find out which enzymes are the most important. Three drugs will be tested on five different strains of mice, as well as on mice that have not been genetically engineered. Shea hopes to learn the best doses and combinations for each situation.

"In the end this will teach us how much of the drug to use for certain people that have weak forms of those enzymes," he said.

Fortunately he will be conducting his research at the UMASS Lowell laboratories, allowing him to continue teaching. He also plans to pull at least five students into his research team.

"They'll all be a part of the papers published," he said. "We're writing and summarizing the results as we go."

Shea added that the treatment could be ready for clinical trials by the end of the grant. Until at least then, however, the drugs will not be tested on human Alzheimer's sufferers.

"This is a treatment, not a cure," he said, adding that research will most definitely need to be continued after his study is completed. "Alzheimer's is more than one problem coming together."

Because folate deficiency has such a degenerate effect on neurons, all people are at risk for Alzheimer's. He added that the fact that people continue to live longer also has an adverse affect on their body systems.

"We may be living too long for our bodies," he said, recommending that people take vitamins and eat vegetables.

Originally from Everett, Shea has been a Middlesex Turnpike homeowner since 1991. After attending UMASS Boston, where he received his bachelor's and his master's, he went on to Northeastern to earn his doctorate. He also taught on the Harvard faculty, spending 10 years and earning the recognition of associate professor before transferring to Lowell. He also serves as the Director of the Center for Cellular Neurobiology and Degeneration Research at the university.

He will speak this Saturday at the Alzheimer Association's 19th annual Family Conference, updating attendees on research done. He will also co-host a workshop for people who have early stage Alzheimer's.

For more information, visit Shea's Web site at www.uml.edu/dept/biology/tshea, or contact the Alzheimer Association's regional office at (800) 548-2111.