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Penn State Professor Seeks to 'Revolutionize' Treatment for Alzheimer's and Brain Damage

by on March 31, 2015 6:15 AM

Penn State men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers is incredibly blunt when he talks about watching his late father struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It was like a slow death in front of our eyes,” Chambers says. “He wasn’t the same guy, the same mentor, the same hero I remembered him to be.”

But because of that experience, Chambers is also incredibly passionate about a Penn State research project that could revolutionize the way doctors treat Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

That’s where Penn State professor and researcher Gong Chen comes in. He’s working to develop a new way to treat everything from stroke-induced brain damage to Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as ALS, the subject of last year’s viral ice bucket challenge). His work doesn't just mitigate the effects of existing brain damage; it actually helps the brain regrow damaged or destroyed tissue.

Chen’s research – already published and warmly received in respected scientific journals – focuses on the use of something called “glial cells,” which occur naturally in the brain. When one suffers brain damage or degeneration, the glial cells fill the empty space, essentially creating a scar inside of the brain.

“This prevents any damage from spreading further, but eventually glial cells can inhibit neurons from growing back, and that will prevent brain function from recovering,” Chen says.

But when Chen injects a special protein called “neuroD1” into glial cells in a mouse’s brain, something exciting happens. The protein interacts with the glial cells in such a way that they begin to transform, and the brain’s neurons actually regenerate and grow back – bringing brain function back with them.

Chen says this is somewhat similar to the use of stem cells to regrow damaged brain tissue, but is a much more promising technique. The human body actually tends to reject most new stem cells because the body views them as alien cells. Because Chen’s technique uses cells already present in the brain, he thinks it will have a much higher success rate than similar procedures using stem cells.

Chen estimates the technology is about a decade or two away from hitting the market, but even at this relatively early stage he has big hopes (and a patent) for a practical application of this new technique.

“Now you can imagine a drug that millions of people worldwide can take every morning to help their brain regenerate neurons so they can remember and learn and live a normal, high-quality life,” Chen says.

The challenge is one of funding. Chen’s research team goes through about a million dollars per year, which includes grants from the National Institutes of Health. But grant funding is limited and competitive, so Chen’s team is hosting an online fundraising campaign to reach a “relatively modest” goal of $50,000 by the end of April – and they’ve already netted about $11,000 in a single day.

For Chambers, Chen’s research hits closer to home than he might like. Having seen his father pass away from Alzheimer’s, the father of three (soon to be four) knows that the same disease is “in my genes, it’s in my blood.”

“We need to raise awareness, and we need the finances to help with this research and find a cure,” Chambers says. “We all want to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives, and we want our children to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives. It’s important for us to see this through and try to end this once and for all.”


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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