Campus News

Alzheimer’s disease under molecular-level laser light

The University of Wollongong’s Biological Sciences Unit is but months away from acquiring state-of-the-art technology, giving scientists the ability to detect molecular interactions at levels previously impossible.

The single-molecule fluorescence (SMF) equipment, comprising multiple lasers, a cutting-edge microscope and software, is capable of analysing processes which underlie diseases such as Alzheimer’s -- down to the level of individual molecules.

UOW’s very own German-manufactured SMF equipment, valued at just under a million dollars, is due to arrive in April.

According to Associate Dean of Science Research Professor Mark Wilson, the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute’s (IHMRI) many research areas, including his own, will greatly benefit from the ability to perform such precise molecular measurements.

“The lasers and microscopes have been available for some time but the mathematics to de-convolute data and extract the information only became available about three years ago,” Professor Wilson said.

“The molecules that have different fluorescent labels on them just diffuse, move randomly through the tiny space in which the laser beams bombard them and then each time a molecule moves through, it flashes and the equipment records that flash.”

“Previously, it was technically impossible to measure down to that level. The principle is that when you shine a light on something (fluorescently labelled) it emits a different coloured light,” he said.

Alongside an international team of scientists Professor Wilson has been able to demonstrate the success of the new method, by generating important findings to better understand Alzheimer’s disease. Their work recently been published in the prestigious Nature journal ‘Nature - Structural & Molecular Biology’.

The focus of a number IHMRI groups is the study of protein aggregation, explains Professor Wilson.

“Proteins are the biological molecules that make up a lot of the structure of our bodies and the enzymes in our bodies are all proteins, so they are important things,” he said.

“Proteins can be damaged or age and when they do they lose their normal shape, become sticky and stick to one another. These form lumps or aggregates which become problematic – if you get lumps formed in your brain from protein called Alzheimer’s beta (amyloid-β1−40 peptide) you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.”

According to the Nature - Structural & Molecular Biology paper, being able to observe and characterise these crucially important molecular processes helps build a better understanding of Alzheimer’s, among many other diseases, and may one day lead to a cure.

“The way SFM technology analyses and reads the data is the really mind-blowing bit,” Professor Wilson said.

“There are some scientists at Cambridge and only a few people around the world who actually know how to do this – it's quite advanced mathematics but the actual acquisition of data is relatively straight forward and the manufacturers now provide software that allow you to do this,” he said.

By Melissa Coade

Last reviewed: 5 March, 2012

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