Funding research toward the prevention of Alzheimer's disease

Assistant professor and GlycoNet investigator Matthew Macauley's research awarded major grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

News Staff - 05 February 2019

As Canadian Alzheimer's Awareness Month wraps up, we shed some light on the work of Matthew Macauley, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and investigator with GlycoNet. Macauley's research aims to clarify the role of CD33, a protein on white blood cells in the brain called microglia, which bind sugars and have important implications for Alzheimer's disease.

Macauley was recently awarded a major five-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), worth $749,700. This project builds upon work previously funded by GlycoNet, a research centre based at the University of Alberta that is working to further our understanding of glycomics-the study of sugars in living cells.

"To use a very simple metaphor, microglia are like the janitorial staff of the brain. Among the many important things they do, they help prevent accumulation of unwanted material, such as proteins. They play a role in pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease," said Macauley. "Accumulation of amyloid-beta, in particular, can lead to the formation of neurodegenerative plaques in the brain. This is one of the reasons microglia are increasingly being viewed as important in preventing this accumulation under healthy conditions."

Studies have shown that two different versions of CD33 are found in the human population. In previous studies, individuals who have a version of CD33 that does not bind its sugars was shown to be highly correlative with protection from Alzheimer's disease.

Using a mouse model, Macauley and his team are looking at the cause-effect relationship between the different versions of CD33 and microglia's ability to dispose of cellular debris. Macauley explained that once these proteins aggregate and form plaque, there appears to be no turning back. This type of plaque has been found in all people who develop Alzheimer's disease. This key trigger eventually leads to the devastating loss of brain function.

"Current studies point to a need to prevent the accumulation of plaques in the first place. That is why it is so important we understand how CD33 regulates the process of plaque accumulation," he added.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada reports that 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer's or another dementia. By 2031, it is estimated that 1.4 million Canadians will suffer from Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. Women are disproportionately affected, representing 72% of cases.

Macauley, who trained as an immunologist during his postdoctoral studies, believes that his laboratory's interdisciplinary approach to research provides a unique opportunity to tackle an issue that is central to human health. His ultimate goal is to perform research that will positively impact people's lives. He hopes his research will lead to tangible benefits for people both at home and worldwide.

This article originally appeared on the GlycoNet website, written by Marie-Christine Houle.