By Marcus Lavergne
New ways to do battle with some of the deadly scourges facing humanity await discovery in the hands and heads of indigenous societies. While neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (or ALS) plague tens of millions of people worldwide, scientists are going back to nature for new answers in the fight against the incurable.
The illnesses are caused by a loss of function, and ultimate death, of nerve cells. According to the EU Joint Programme-Neurodegenerative Disease Research, they can cause both ataxia, or problems with motor skills, as well as disorders with mental functions, widely known as dementia. Because nerve cells don’t reproduce and don’t grow back after being damaged, there is no way to reverse the effects of these diseases.
In 2012, the Alzheimer’s Association reported that the number of people suffering with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. alone was more than 5 million. That’s supposed to increase significantly by 2050. An aging population and lack of permanent treatment make for expensive health care and lifestyle challenges for the sick and healthy. According to the association, care costs amount to around $200 billion nationwide, annually, and around 15 million Americans reported giving unpaid care to someone with the disease or other types of dementia.
Neurodegenerative diseases can be debilitating, but research into cures and therapies for the diseases are opening doors to potential solutions.
Last Thursday, Dr. Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist, spoke to an audience during his lecture, Searching Remote Islands for Alzheimer’s and ALS Cures, in the Davidson Math and Science Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. Cox is the director for the Institute for Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where his team is focused on discovering new ways to treat ALS and Alzheimer’s.
Cox travels all over the world investigating flora and fauna and working with indigenous peoples to gain insight into their lifestyles. Both genes and environment are known to have an impact on a person’s likelihood of falling victim to the ailments. Cox’s travel and research have shown a positive correlation between where and how people live and how healthy they are.
“I’ve lived for periods up to a year with my family in very remote villages, nowhere near electricity and the kids have never been healthier,” Cox said. “In the places I’ve worked the people are actually healthier because they drink clean water, they breathe clean air, they eat food that’s totally organic. They have good lifestyles.”
Cox’s interaction with the Chamorro people of Guam led to a greater understanding of an ALS-like paralytic disease that was taking the lives of a large number of people. After looking into their diet, Cox discovered that the people were eating significant amounts of a bat species known as flying foxes.
Through more thorough dietary investigations, he found that the people were also ingesting a neurotoxin known as beta-Methylamino-L-alanine or BMAA in high amounts. The flying foxes were eating from cycad trees in the area, and those trees were collecting cyanobacteria that led to the poison’s development in the tree’s seeds.
Cox’s team found that the BMAA was connected to a misfolding of an amino acid found in humans called serine. That misfolding is also characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases. The connection was becoming clearer.
“What’s interesting is that it has not escaped our notice that Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS are called tangled diseases because they are all characterized by misfolded proteins,” Cox told the audience. “We found that if we increase serine, we can actually block misfolding by BMAA.”
After sending the findings to labs at California State University, Fresno, BMAA-infected fruit flies that showed symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases were exposed to high levels of L-serine. The flies no longer suffered from the neurotoxin, and shortly after noting the findings, Cox went to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to start Phase 1 human ALS trials.
Cox then began using his ethnobotany experience to search for the amino acid in nature, and eventually found himself and his team in Ogimi, Okinawa, a remote area in Japan where there are no reports of ALS or Alzheimer’s and elders are healthier than ever.
“There’s only about 2 percent of American females over age 85,” Cox told the audience. “There are 14 percent in Ogimi. We’ve counted 17 people over 100.”
In Ogimi, Cox discovered a 94-year-old woman with a shocking amount of flexibility and smooth mobility. According to him, that isn’t a rare find in the village, where nobody wears glasses and age recall is very simple.
After talking to more people throughout the village, Cox made an important discovery: the environment rather than genetics was responsible for the healthy population. While researching the traditional Ogimi diet, Cox found that their top 15 dietary items were packed with serine.
“These people are eating the most serine-rich diet that has ever been measured in any human population,” Cox said.
After compiling three solid scientific pieces of evidence that serine might be the key to figuring out new treatments for people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, Cox’s team began clinical trials in Jackson Hole where he saw even greater results. The institute saw patients living longer with partially regained functionality.
Now his team is getting ready to start Phase 1 Alzheimer’s trials in humans and is working on moving into Phase 2 clinical trials to test L-serine in ALS patients. After successfully reducing BMAA count in an animal model and proving that L-serine is neuroprotective, his team is raising the $2 million necessary to move forward.
The research done by Cox and the Institute for Ethnomedicine is a huge step in finding the answer to crippling, often fatal diseases. Several scientists from UNR were in attendance at the lecture. Assistant chemistry professor Dr. Christopher Jeffrey is in charge of the Jeffrey Laboratory of Chemical Diversity, and although his field differs from Cox, the research is relatable.
“I think one thing that’s really important in this context is that it shows how the collaboration between sciences is really how things get done,” Jeffrey said. “It’s not like you just have chemists who do one thing and biologists that do another. It’s the communication between people that really leads to the transformative science that we do.”
Dr. Tom Kidd is in charge of a fruit fly lab on campus. His research involves several aspects of neurology including axons and navigation. He said lectures like Cox’s provide a good opportunity to learn something new.
“[Students] should broaden their horizons,” Kidd said. “They’ll discover what interests them. Maybe they just want to get to med school or whatever, but there’s so many career options and this sort of thing just shows you there’s a whole world out there. A lot of these people aren’t just pure academics which I think is really good.”
Cox’s collaborative brand of science and passion for discovering cures to some of the world’s deadliest diseases is leading to new breakthroughs that may become cures for patients battling against time.
As his research and that of other’s progresses further, the world of medicine remains a promising, yet arduous place.
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mlavergne21.