BGU finds key protein
Ben-Gurion University’s Dr. Deborah Toiber will be part of a panel in Vancouver called Alzheimer’s, Dementia and You: Research, Risk Reduction and Resources. (photo from CABGU)
Alzheimer’s affects about six percent of people over the age 65 worldwide. For years, scientists have been searching for ways to treat it and to discover its roots, but without much success, until recently.
A group of Ben-Gurion University researchers, under the leadership of Dr. Deborah Toiber, is among those who have made breakthroughs. They have discovered that a certain protein, SIRT6, necessary for DNA repair, is largely missing from the brains of people with Alzheimeir’s. The absence of this protein and the gradual decline in its production by the human body as we age might be what triggers the disease.
On June 5, Toiber will be the keynote speaker at Alzheimer’s, Dementia and You: Research, Risk Reduction and Resources. She will be joined in a panel discussion by Laura Feldman from the Alzheimer Society of British Columbia and Joanne Haramia of Jewish Family Services; Simon Fraser University professor emeritus Dr. Gloria Gutman, one of the founders of SFU’s Gerontology Research Centre, will be the moderator. The event, which will be held at the Rothstein Theatre, is being presented by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) in partnership with the Jewish Independent, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Adults 55+ program, the Alzheimer Society of B.C., Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Seniors Alliance, and L’Chaim Adult Day Care.
According to David Berson, executive director of CABGU, British Columbia and Alberta Region, “the purpose of the panel is to increase the awareness and understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and neurodegenerative diseases.”
“Deborah was coming to Canada to visit the community in Winnipeg for a similar event,” Berson told the Independent. “We had a wonderful opportunity to bring the young and dynamic researcher to Vancouver and we jumped at it…. Toiber’s research, as I understand it, is part of a race to discover, isolate and understand the characteristics, components and mechanisms of DNA that will allow us to identify and treat neurodegenerative diseases prior to onset.”
In her email interview with the Independent, Toiber talked about her work and her group’s discovery. She said that DNA deteriorate with age. “It is not something genetic or environmental,” she said. “We repair our DNA and continue going on, but the repairs are not perfect. Some DNA remain unrepaired. As we get older, unrepaired DNA accumulate, and their ability to produce proteins diminishes.”
She further explained: “If the DNA is damaged, and a cell feels it is too dangerous to continue with this damaged DNA, the cell may activate a self-destruct mechanism. If too many cells do this, the tissue with the dying cells will deteriorate, such as the brain.” Essentially, the deterioration of the DNA and the reduced production of SIRT6 protein mark “the beginning of the chain that ends in neurodegenerative diseases in seniors. In Alzheimer’s patients, SIRT6 is almost completely gone.”
Toiber said scientists should be focusing on how to maintain the production of SIRT6 and how to improve the repair capacity of the damaged DNA, because that is what causes Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. Unfortunately, it is impossible to introduce the needed protein directly into the brain. “There is a blood barrier that prevents things from passing into the brain,” she said. “But we are trying to find a way to increase the expression of the protein into the brain.”
Toiber has always been fascinated by the molecular biology of the human brain. “I chose this field because I wanted to understand in-depth how the brain works, to investigate what happens when things stop working,” she said. “I think that molecular biology is the answer to all those questions. It’s like being a detective on the molecular level.”
She realizes that a detective’s work is never easy or fast. “Results take years to build, as they are based on previous findings, ours and other scientists’. My current group, where I am the principal researcher, is about three years old. It is a new lab.”
The research is multifaceted and multidirectional. “We do basic science,” she said. “We use animal models and cells to understand what is happening as we age, what is the cause of disease and what can we learn from this to develop treatments or preventive actions. We also collaborate with medical professionals and other scientists to get a fuller picture of various aspects of aging and neurodegeneration, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.”
Toiber’s group doesn’t work on the pharmaceutical angle of how to introduce the protein into patients’ bodies. Instead, she explained, “We are interested in the molecular causes of aging, such as DNA damage accumulation, and how this leads to disease. We work in experimental biology. These experiments are expensive and difficult. It can take a long time to see and understand the results, but it is also rewarding. Molecular processes help us understand how our organisms work and what happens when things go wrong. We have to be optimistic and keep trying.”
Many scientists in related fields of study are interested in Toiber’s work. “I have talked about our research at the international neurochemistry meeting in Paris and at conferences in Crete and Israel,” she said.
To hear her speak in Vancouver, register at eventbrite.ca. There is no cost to attend.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].