Lumen Scholar studies molecules & potential Alzheimer’s treatment

More than 5.3 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that impairs memory and behavior. Elon University senior Caroline Peckels is analyzing compounds found in walnuts that may one day lead to new treatment for patients with the degenerative condition, and her work is the latest to be featured in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2011.

Elon University senior Caroline Peckels (left) with associate professors Kathy Matera and Joel Karty in the Department of Chemistry.

Peckels and her mentor, professor Joel Karty, are working with associate professor Kathy Matera in the Department of Chemistry to identify the precise characteristics of gallic and ellagic acid in walnuts that lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s.

In the labs of the McMichael Science Center, Peckels has already discovered that it’s the shape of those compounds that may help prevent memory loss and deter the build-up of plaques that ravage the brain in sick patients.

The chemistry major from Pinehurst, N.C., plans to attend graduate school for a doctorate in either biological or physical chemistry with the eventual goal of securing a position in pharmaceutical research.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

The program includes course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad, internships locally and abroad, program development, and creative productions and performances.

Peckels recently sat down with the Office of University Relations to offer details of her work.

Share with me a brief description of your research, which has a three-prong approach to it.

“There are several hallmarks that are associated with Alzheimer’s, including the formation of amyloid beta plaques, the breakdown of acetylcholine, and oxidative stress, which is when you have free radicals that are unstable and start to attack molecules in the brain.

“I’m interested in designing a compound that can alleviate the three different hallmarks at one time. We’ve actually found that compounds in walnuts, specifically gallic and ellagic acid, have been shown to do this. My question is, ‘What is it about gallic and ellagic acid that make them able to do three different things at one time?'”

What specifically happens with Alzheimer’s disease?

“With Alzheimer’s you have the formation of amyloid beta plaques that, for some reason in people with Alzheimer’s, the proteins actually start to combine and clump together. Once the person dies, you can see these clumps physically in the person’s brain. You also have this neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, and in people with Alzheimer’s, acetylcholine has been shown to be in low concentrations. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that’s linked to memory.”

Why do you think research into Alzheimer’s seems to captures the public’s attention more so than just about any other disease?

“It’s a disease that primarily affects a person’s memory. The hardest thing is seeing a loved one lose her memory, knowing she doesn’t recognize you. It currently affects more than 5 million Americans. One in six people over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s right now. I think that with the Baby Boomers becoming older, it’s going to affect a lot more Americans than we realize.

How has the disease personally affected you? And does that serve as inspiration for your research?

“One of my grandfather’s had Alzheimer’s. He lived in Costa Rica. When I talked with him on the phone, he’d ask me some of the same questions over and over. It was just hard to have a conversation with him, to interact with him, knowing there was something going on his mind that makes him not able to quite be with it. When I tell people that I’m doing Alzheimer’s research, everyone I know always goes, ‘Oh, I have grandmother, or I have a friend, or someone in my family has Alzheimer’s disease.’ It affects everyone.”

How do you think researchers will use your work in the years to come?

“My research will contribute to medical research, specifically with drug design. With current drug designs, they’re only focusing on one hallmark of Alzheimer’s, the breakdown of acetylcholine, and with my research, we’re looking at drugs that alleviate three different hallmarks.”

What are you post-Elon plans?

“Go onto graduate school. I’ve been accepted to several schools, so I’m in the process of looking at them. I’m going to look into biological or physical chemistry. After five-and-a-half years, I’m going to go on and do pharmaceutical research.”

Is this a line of work you hope to continue in graduate school?

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about Alzheimer’s, and it’s very intriguing. I’ve learned so many things I never knew before about it. Although I’m not sure I’ll actually work on Alzheimer’s when I go into graduate school, I’ve realized that I want to do research on different diseases, whether it be Alzheimer’s or cancer or other diseases.”

How has the Lumen Prize guided your scholarship? Would this work have been possible without the prize?

“The Lumen Prize has helped me so much in my research. Originally I had planned on synthesizing compounds I that I was later going to test, but with the Lumen Prize, I was able to buy those compounds, which saved me a lot of time and a lot of effort that I could then devote to actually doing the assays that were linked to Alzheimer’s. In addition, the Lumen Prize helped pay for attending a national conference, the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society, so I was able to give a 15-minute presentation in New Orleans, which I had never been to before.”

Do you think we’re going to see a cure for Alzheimer’s in your lifetime?

“There are so many things that play into Alzheimer’s that we still don’t know about. I definitely think we’ll be able to lessen the symptoms of Alzheimer’s tremendously. I’m not sure we’ll be able to find a cure in my lifetime, but hopefully we’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of those it affects right now.”

Maybe it won’t be a cure so much as a treatment for a permanent condition?

“Exactly. My research looks into alleviating what’s happening right now as opposed to trying to assess why Alzheimer’s even starts.”