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Campus Tackles Alzheimer's Disease

A new Cal State Channel Islands research project focuses on whether plant oils might yield medicinal weapons against the scourge.

October 21, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The newest California State University campus is stepping into the fight against Alzheimer's, with students and faculty exploring the healing power of plant oils to block the brain-crippling effects of the disease.

The Alzheimer's Institute at Cal State Channel Islands, near Camarillo, represents the first effort in the Cal State system to perform drug discovery research on the disease.

Led by medicinal chemist Gilbert Rishton, a former Alzheimer's researcher at biotechnology giant Amgen Inc., the research focuses on chemically altering oils from plants such as ginger and ginkgo biloba and testing the extracts' ability to treat and prevent the disease.

For example, researchers are attempting to identify and isolate drug-like compounds in those oils that can prevent key proteins from splitting and depositing plaque on brain cells. Many scientists believe such protein fragments build up and corrode the brains of those suffering from Alzheimer's.

The idea isn't to produce new drugs but to develop a catalog of leads that could be patented by the Cal State system and pursued by pharmaceutical companies.

"I'm personally convinced that this is the most critical unmet medical need we currently face," said Rishton, noting that the number of Alzheimer's patients worldwide is expected to triple, to 45 million, by 2050. "This is an opportunity to put some quality information out there that others can use as a starting point in drug development."

Cal State Channel Islands President Richard Rush said the Alzheimer's initiative represents the first of what he hopes will be many groundbreaking research endeavors at the 3-year-old university, the newest in the 23-campus system.

The initiative will rely solely on private contributions. Since May, more than $53,000 has been given, including $40,000 from an anonymous donor. The institute will have its inaugural fundraising dinner Saturday in Malibu.

Operating out of laboratories in a new science building on campus, the institute could move to its own facility within three years if enough money can be raised.

Rush said the university hadn't been trying to score a first in the Cal State system. But he said the opportunity arose last year when Rishton, while still at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, began teaching part time at the campus and talking about the value of the research work.

Rush said the institute is an ambitious undertaking for the campus, a boon for the university's efforts to create innovative programs to draw top-flight faculty and students.

"We're starting to build the momentum," Rush said. "We hope this really contributes to the entire discussion around Alzheimer's disease, and we are proud that our science faculty and students will play such a significant role in that research."

How significant remains to be seen. But Kenneth Kosik, a former Alzheimer's researcher at Harvard Medical School and now co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at UC Santa Barbara, said he's intrigued by the Channel Islands initiative.

Noting that many modern drugs and medicines derive from plant sources, Kosik said there's good reason to look at plant oils as a potential weapon for slowing the long, dark slide of Alzheimer's patients into a world of confusion.

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, characterized by the progressive destruction of brain cells that leads to increasingly severe decline in memory, thinking and reasoning. The disease ultimately is fatal because it eventually affects the ability to move and swallow.

Kosik said he's pleased to see Alzheimer's drug discovery research taking place in a public setting, outside the confines of the pharmaceutical industry and concerns about market share and profit margins.

"I'm a strong advocate for drug discovery research going on at public universities," he said. "We don't have to justify what we are doing in terms of what the ultimate market will be."

Although the Channel Islands project officially kicked off this school year, Rishton and a small group of chemistry and biology students have been doing research since last spring.

Wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, they perform their work under glass hoods on which formulas and equations are scribbled. Like chefs boiling up new recipes, they use glass tubes and low flames to chemically condition plant oils, removing the non-drug-like components and producing novel compounds. Ultimately, the process could be used with farm crops, marine algae and even green waste.

The extracts are sent to a laboratory in Washington state to test their ability to block or treat the disease. The results are tracked via the Internet.

Senior Cody Fullenwider, an Ojai resident majoring in cellular and molecular biology, wants to pursue drug discovery work, but he said he never thought he'd get a chance to do so at Cal State Channel Islands.

Now part of the inaugural research team at the Alzheimer's Institute, he said he's getting a jump-start on his career. But he said the work is about much more than that.

"Having seen people with Alzheimer's, having seen what families go through when someone has the disease, I know it's a horrible, horrible thing," said Fullenwider, who devotes 20 hours a week to the work. "That is my guiding force."

Rishton said the institute provides a unique opportunity to prepare students for postgraduate studies in scientific and medical research and for careers in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields.

He said a major goal of the initiative is to rapidly publish its findings to better inform the Alzheimer's community about efforts to treat the disease.

"Everyone I mention this to has a family story; people, I think, have an emotional response to it on a very personal level," Rishton said. "We have a real opportunity to do work that can impact this impending healthcare catastrophe."

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