Gero ’13 Explores Alzheimer’s Disease Through Fruit Flies

By Purnell T. Cropper | March 9, 2012

By Chris Macchi ’12

This semester Biology major Teresa Gero ’13 has genetically modified fruit flies to have Alzheimer’s disease. What’s more impressive: she may have found a cure. Under the tutelage of Dr. Brie Paddock, she has conducted neurodegenerative disease research, a pathway she anticipates will lead to graduate work in physical therapy and ultimately a career in the research field.

Gero is investigating the involvement of the protein calcineurin with Amyloid precursor protein (APP) metabolism within the brain. APP is a protein that leads to plaque formation in the brain. By gathering information about the importance of calcineurin, the duo hopes to inhibit a subunit of calcineurin with the aim of reducing the production of the Alzheimer’s-inducing plaque. These plaques build up in brain matter, blocking communication pathways and disrupting the vital processes for cell survival.

It is due to these dying brain cells that memory loss occurs. By genetically engineering Drosophila fruit flies to have human Alzheimer’s disease, Gero and Paddock are able to test the effects of various treatments and quantify results by observing the rate of improper APP processing leading to the plaques, which is ultimately prevented by inhibiting the calcineurin A subunit.

Gero is a commuter student and notes that working with flies isn’t always easy, and not just because of the complexity of the research. “There are a lot of time constraints. You have to do something [in the lab] and then be back exactly within eight hours.” This can be challenging—traffic in the Philadelphia area doesn’t start and stop at her convenience or that of the fruit flies—but not enough to affect her excitement about the project.

“I didn’t have any kind of lab experience before last semester…. I really dove headfirst into my academic career because of having this responsibility with the research. It made me be my own boss and gave me something concrete to work towards. It made me put in a lot of time and be a more devoted student.”

Now Gero and Paddock are analyzing their results and are optimistic about the significance thus far. “We’re just to the point where we’ll run some statistical tests [to measure the significance], but just looking at it, it’s in the 80 to 90% range of rescued effects. So even before doing the numbers, it looks pretty significant.”

Their findings could go a long way in curbing the effects of Alzheimer’s and might have implications for other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. By investigating the role of calcineurin in APP metabolism in the brain, Gero and Paddock hope to determine the mechanism that causes Alzheimer’s pathology in humans and lay the groundwork for further research to eliminate this disease.