UA professor receives grant for Alzheimer’s research

By Kristina Aiad-Toss, Writer

A university professor has been granted $100,000 to continue his critical research on Alzheimer’s and other nerve diseases.

Jie Zheng, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at The University of Akron, was awarded the two-year grant in February 2015 from the Alzheimer’s Association.

This grant will help Zheng conduct further research on a drug that could potentially stop the progression of Alzheimer’s and other nerve diseases. The Alzheimer Association chose 78 projects to fund out of more than a thousand researchers seeking grants.

Zheng began his Alzheimer research at the National Cancer Center when Tel Aviv University professor Ruth Nussinov selected him to join her lab. Even though Zheng did not possess any knowledge about Alzheimer’s or structural biology, Nussinov chose him because she saw he possessed great potential and could bring new ideas to the field.

The grant will support Zheng and his team in researching peptides that compose possible self-destroying proteins. One such peptide is called amyloid-beta, or “Abeta,” which accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients and kills the neurons responsible for transmitting nerve signals.

Zheng and his colleagues created a database that contains nearly 5,000 peptides. They will sort through them to identify one that could stop Abeta from clumping in the brain.

In previous work, Zheng has recognized a few promising Alzheimer’s-inhibitor peptides and might be able to discover more in the future.

With funding from the New Investigator Research Grant, Zheng must also develop a delivery method to transport small pieces of the inhibitory peptides to the brain. Zheng’s strategy is to chemically bond the peptides to nanoparticles to allow the Alzheimer’s inhibitors to pass through the blood-brain barrier.

Unlike the existing Alzheimer’s inhibitors that mainly comprise organic small molecules or peptides, Zheng’s research is the first work to develop the peptide-nanoparticles conjugates as Alzheimer’s inhibitors.

Most Alzheimer’s drugs on the market or in development have toxic side effects.

Zheng’s preliminary results show that peptide-nanoparticle conjugates have enhanced inhibitory ability and retain nontoxicity. Zheng’s research presents safer innovations that could impede degenerative nerve disease development.

Although Zheng’s studies are promising, challenges still arise during the research process.

Zheng’s research is still at an early stage of understanding the inhibition mechanism. Deciphering the mechanisms requires a large amount of data to be collected and analyzed over a long period of time. If successful, this information will provide atomic details for the design of next-generation Alzheimer’s inhibitors.

Zheng’s research aims to create a large database of inhibitors with detailed biological and structural data.

Three UA professors and one visiting professor are researching with Zheng who has received three grants for his research so far. The Alzheimer’s Association grant is renewable if his work remains promising.  Animal testing might happen soon.

“When I joined the chemical and biomolecular department in 2007, we only had nine faculty in our department, and there was no Alzheimer’s research on campus,” Zheng said. “I am very thankful for my colleagues, who provided tremendous professional and personal support for me to develop amyloid research here. I feel very honored to be a faculty member in our department.”