Students contribute to medical research on Alzheimer’s disease, new antibiotics

Posted by Centre News in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Biology, Chemistry, News, Research 18 Sep 2014

Muzyka Antibiotic Research 2014Confirming Centre College’s emphasis on undergraduate research, nearly 50 students participated in collaborative research with faculty this summer, many of whom were engaged in highly relevant medical research.

Mansi Parekh ’15 (pictured below, left) and Mary Cundiff ’16 (pictured below, right) worked with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kerry Paumi to conduct research on Alzheimer’s disease, specifically examining the Amyloid-beta peptide, one of two biological markers of the disease.

“Amyloid-beta is a biological peptide that forms a plaque in the brain. This plaque disrupts the signaling between neurons and initiates additional cellular responses that cause further damage to cells. The end result is neuronal death,” Paumi explains. “Our focus is looking at ways to prevent or reverse Amyloid-beta plaque formation.”Alzheimer's Research

Parekh and Cundiff worked with peptide-linked metals to discover methods of barring this plaque formation. Paumi hopes that this research exemplified “real-world applications” for what they have learned in class.

“I really wanted students to see how course material connects to the bigger picture and how it connects to their future careers,” she says. “I went to graduate school and completed post-doctorate work at larger institutions, but I came from a liberal arts background. I  wanted to come back to a liberal arts school to be able to provide that same type of experience to my students.”

Parekh is certain this research experience will prove to have long-term benefits.

“I’ve learned a lot of skills that I can use in the future because I would like to do research or shadow at a hospital,” she says.

Cundiff believes her Centre education has provided her with opportunities she may not have received elsewhere.

“It’s neat to be part of the research that’s going on,” she says. “It’s interesting to say, ‘I helped out with this disease in some way,’ or ‘I saw what was going on.’ Not very many people can say that.”

Just down the hall, Assistant Professor of Chemistry January Haile and Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Muzyka (pictured above, left) worked with a team of six student research assistants to continue their ongoing antibiotics research. The team is attempting to discover new antibiotics by inhibiting the growth of MurA, an enzyme that synthesizes with cell walls to give bacteria its shape. If  MurA activity is effectively inhibited, the body’s likelihood of resisting antibiotics is reduced.

The students are well aware of the crucial implications of this research.

“A lot of bacteria are becoming resistant to drugs that we have,” Griffin Cote ’16 (pictured above, right) explains. “MurA is in an antibiotic people use now called fosfomycin, but Staphylococcus aureus has developed a mutation that makes the bacteria resistant to the drug—this is what most people know as MRSA. When bacteria are resistant, the drugs can’t fight the infection.”

The process of testing MurA is multifaceted and required a team effort. Daniel Graham’16 and Luke Presson ’16 used a supercomputer to test compounds on the enzyme via modeling; Brian Wright ’16, Abby Patterson ’17 and Grace Anastasio ’17 placed DNA that codes for MurA into bacterial cells to purify it; and Cote and Zaid Siddiqui ’16 made and tested compounds that may inhibit growth on the enzyme.

The team agrees that Centre’s encouragement of interdisciplinary work helped to move the project along.

“You have a group of people and you get to discuss your science,” Haile says. “You have people who are going to help you solve problems throughout the summer. You don’t need two professors leading a group of six soldiers; you need a group of eight people thinking about what we should do.”

Haile believes that Centre’s research opportunities help the research assistants shift their mindsets from students to scientists.

“Dr. Muzyka and I are experts at seeing the big picture and have more experience with research,” she says. “The students are the experts in their particular domain. That group of experts explaining things to each other is invaluable.”

by Hayley Hoffman ’16