My father is probably the biggest reason that I got interested in science. When I was a child, he was an entrepreneur and created a business as a distributor of laboratory and medical supplies. He sold the supplies to local hospitals and universities in the city where I grew up. So naturally, most of my childhood toys were test tubes, microscopes, dissection kits, and other fun things that helped me look at the world around me in a different way. Because of him, I knew how to use scientific tools before I knew how to read and write.
The Taube Koret Center Blog
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) involves the progressive loss of memory and the ability to think. It robs us of all of those things (e.g., personality, memories) that make us human. In the end, it is invariably death. Tragically, although AD was first described over 100 years ago, no effective treatments are available.
As a child, I remember looking up into the night sky and wondering how it all fit together. I also remember visiting the Natural History Museum in London and grilling my father about why the dinosaurs went extinct. As an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford University, I studied biology. Animal behavior intrigued me for a time, but molecular biology and genetics won out in the end. I benefited greatly from the encouragement of one of my tutors, David Roberts, and a professor, Jane Langdale, in whose lab I learned how to do experiments properly.
The state of neurodegenerative diseases in the United States can be summarized in two statements. First, after more than 100 years, no effective treatments exist for most of the major neurodegenerative diseases. Second, the number of Americans afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to quadruple to 20 million by 2050 with a huge increase in cost and suffering. The other neurodegenerative diseases are expected to similarly increase.
With this great need and after so many years, why is the situation so bleak?
My path into medicine and science was not a straight one, at least not at first. In elementary and high school, I scored well on tests and received special opportunities, but I mostly tried to hide that geek side. It wasn’t cool, and it was definitely not a way to impress girls. In fact, I met the girl who became my wife in 7th grade (so my strategy worked!), and she can’t believe what a different person I actually am compared with the person she knew in high school. Believe it or not, most people thought of me as a jock (three sports: football, basketball, tennis).
Although not as well-known as Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a serious health problem. It is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease and the most common cause in those under age 65. It involves the loss of neurons in the frontal (behind the forehead) and temporal (over the ears) lobes of the brain. FTD is hard to diagnose, but it generally involves problems with changes in social behavior and conduct, loss of understanding of words, and difficulty in speaking. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, FTD does not affect memory.
Stem cells have amazing promise for making replacement tissues and organs. However, while that application might be some years in the future, stem cells have already proved to be a welcome breakthrough for neurodegenerative disease research. This is particularly true for a specific type of stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs that were discovered by Gladstone investigator Shinya Yamanaka.
The ALS Association Golden West Chapter organized a tour of the Taube/Koret Center at the Gladstone Institutes directed by Dr. Steven Finkbeiner. The tour was an opportunity for some the chapter's key stakeholders, including people diagnosed with ALS, caregivers, family members, volunteer fundraiseres and philanthropists, to learn about the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that are being supported by the ALS Asssociation; through annual programs such as the Walk to Defeat ALS, the Napa Ride to Defeat ALS, and other major gifts and special programs.
Finkbeiner Lab scientist Dr. Ashkan Javaherian and his team are using autophagy to better understand the mechanics of ALS — and to develop potential new ALS therapies.
Studies of human diseases in animals have always had limitations. Now Dr. Gaia Skibinski is using cutting-edge technology to create custom-made, entirely human neurons that manifest many of the characteristics of Parkinson’s disease. These single-cell PD models help her and her team to gain insights into the disease and to continue their search for possible new treatments for this devastating disease.