Digging for clues at the cellular level in DeCoster’s Lab

Jan 7, 2020 | Applied and Natural Sciences, Faculty/Staff, General News, Innovation, Research

Neurology professor and physician Dr. Karl Kieburtz will deliver the next seminar in the New Frontiers in Biomedical Research series Jan. 13. A Professor of Neurology and a practicing physician at University of Rochester Medical Center, Kieburtz is also president of Clintrex, a research company that helps operationalize new treatments for diseases of the central nervous system. In advance of and following this seminar, Louisiana Tech will share a series of stories designed to help readers know more about diseases of the central nervous system and how Louisiana Tech students and faculty are working to advance care for them. This is one story from that series.

James E. Wyche III Professor of Biomedical Engineering Dr. Mark DeCoster and his group in the Cellular Neuroscience Lab at Louisiana Tech are involved in several areas of research concerning the brain and nervous system, including the development of nanotechnology to understand how the brain works at the cellular level in both healthy or diseased states.

For the past four years, DeCoster and his group have been actively following Parkinson’s research trends and opportunities as Tech and the University’s Parkinson Research Center (PRC) work to improve the lives of caregivers for and patients with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease that decreases a patient’s normal neurological function over time.

“This is due to the loss of dopaminergic pathways in the brain, meaning that some of the brain connections that use the signaling transmitter dopamine are lost,” DeCoster said. “In patients with Parkinson’s, this means motor symptoms such as rigidity, tremor, poverty of movement, and loss of balance become present. Patients with Parkinson’s also present symptoms — apathy, anxiety, and depression — related to the loss of dopamine. What is going on in the central nervous system due to Parkinson’s disease is thus both motor-related, which expresses itself as abnormal movements (both too much and too little), and behavioral, such as the negative depressed symptoms.”

Dopamine replacement therapy is being used to slow or decrease the symptoms of the disease, as is deep brain stimulation. But for now, there is no cure.

Types of research going on to find a cure for Parkinson’s include “replacing failing cells in the brain with stem cells, which have the potential to replace the failing cells,” DeCoster said. “Also, gene therapy is a strategy where the genes’ coding for the production of dopamine might be controlled to help replace the dopamine being lost.

“Deep brain stimulation is a method whereby the cells of the brain are stimulated using devices created through biomedical engineering, and when stimulated, the brain cells release chemical factors that could improve brain function during the disease,” he said. “Also, an appreciation of specific molecules that may be involved in inflammation are being considered as factors that can make Parkinson’s disease worse, or more likely; by identifying these molecules, diminishing them, or blocking them, that might point to a cure.”

Specifically to Parkinson’s disease and other brain functions, DeCoster and his group are currently “trying to leverage potential applications for a nanomaterial called CuHARS, which stands for ‘copper high-aspect ratio structures.’ The copper part of the CuHARS may help us develop a sensor for molecules found in the brain and important to Parkinson’s disease.”

An example of such molecules would be those containing the protein alpha-synuclein, which appears in many of the abnormal cellular formations that grow in brain cells during the development of Parkinson’s disease. Alpha-synuclein clumping and buildup in the brain can be related to copper, because alpha-synuclein is known to bind to copper; too much copper in the brain seems to cause the alpha-synuclein clumping, which causes brain cell function to fail.

“We therefore predict that the copper in our CuHARS could help detect alpha-synuclein, and help us to visualize the process over time,” DeCoster said. “The CuHARS material is an interesting nanomaterial because it is incredibly stable in water once we make it, but once we put the material back with cells, it is completely biodegradable; that is, it completely breaks down. Since we know how to make the CuHARS and exactly what is in it, it could be used as a sensor to help detect the Parkinson’s disease process and to model how it progresses over time.”      

In 2016, DeCoster’s group successfully published some findings concerning their research with the nanomaterials, and DeCoster started keeping up with research alerts and funding opportunities through sources such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.  (The paper, titled Self-Assembled Metal–Organic Biohybrids (MOBs) Using Copper and Silver for Cell Studies, was published through the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI).

“Because of some of our latest discoveries, we predict that CuHARS could help us detect a number of molecules in the brain, including some of those involved in Parkinson’s disease,” he said. “We will keep pushing forward to discover how these new materials might be used, including what we believe could be useful for a more thorough understanding of Parkinson’s.”

Among other faculty leading groups conducting brain research include biomedical engineering associate professor Dr. Teresa “Terri” Murray and Director of Tech’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Rehabilitation Science (CBERS) Dr. Leon Iasemidis.