Century-old samples from an Antarctic expedition are helping researchers fighting to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases.
Scientists at Jackson’s Brain Chemistry Labs, formerly The Institute of EthnoMedicine, worked with the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Dundee in Scotland for over five years to analyze samples of cyanobacterial mats collected in the summer of 1902 by explorer Robert Falcon Scott from ponds and sediment accumulated in the Antarctic.
The samples have been preserved for over 100 years at the museum in London.
After testing samples in Jackson, Drs. Sandra Banack, Paul Cox, Rachael Dunlop and James Metcalf found that the samples contained toxins produced by cyanobacteria, including toxins linked to liver cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
“We jumped at the chance,” Metcalf said. “We thought, ‘Well, we can’t lose.’ If there are toxins, great. That helps us understand exposure. If not, then it helps with the pollution aspect. But it seems like they’ve always been there and we’ve always been exposed to them. And it’s important for our research to find ways to combat their effects and provide cures for people who may be susceptible to the actions of these toxins.”
This discovery, the result of years of collaboration between scientists, is promising for the future of medicine. The samples were run through the lab two to three years ago, but the analysis was just published Wednesday in the European Journal of Phycology.
“What drives us is results,” Banack said. “Our only goal is to change patient outcomes.”
Alzheimer’s is a chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Estimates vary, but experts believe more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Lou Gehrig’s, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, is also a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, weakening muscles and eventually impacting physical functions.
The discovery of the toxins in the Antarctic samples provides a much-needed baseline for cyanobacterial toxins prior to pollution and climate change.
“What this shows is that there is a background amount of toxin exposure for people,” said Cox, the executive director of Brain Chemistry Labs. “And we’re really interested in how that fits into the puzzle because we know that for certain neurological illnesses, there is a background rate. What this puzzle piece suggests is that we’ve always been exposed to these toxins as people, as human beings.”
According to the researchers, it appears that humans have been exposed to low levels of cyanobacteria throughout history, which could account for a low but constant rate of certain diseases. But recent increases in frequency and duration of these cyanobacterial blooms may be associated with increases of neurodegenerative diseases.
“The real question is, as we are increasing our likelihood of toxin exposure, is that what is actually driving measured increases in rates of these diseases?” Cox asked. “We know that people are living longer, obviously, so they are more likely to get, say, Alzheimer’s. But even when you adjust for age, in Sweden and in other places, it appears that these diseases are increasing.”
That’s what the scientists want to find out. A better understanding of the interactions between genes and the environment, Metcalf said, could lead to new therapeutic approaches.
These same cyanobacteria were found when dangerous levels of toxins caused Toledo, Ohio, to temporarily shut down the drinking water supply for a half-million residents in 2014, when toxic algae blooms took over Florida’s St. Lucie River in 2016 and when Utah Lake closed in the summer of 2016 and was under a warning advisory during the summer of 2017.
“These are the same organisms that we’ve found growing in Antarctica and that we’ve analyzed,” Metcalf said. “So they are everywhere, and we certainly believe that people are exposed. This was a pristine environment prior to industry and pollution, and they are there.”There’s no cause for alarm, but these organisms can be found in our backyard. The lab is testing fossilized cyanobacteria from the Eocene Epoch, 56 million to 33.9 million years ago, from the Kemmerer area.
“These are the same organisms that are in Yellowstone,” Metcalf said. “All the greens and reds you see in Yellowstone are these organisms.”
The Jackson scientists’ colleagues from London are in Antarctica now, collecting contemporary samples for analysis. In the meantime, they are continuing their work at Brain Chemistry Labs.
“We’re really pushing on having cures for these diseases come out of here,” Cox said.
This story has been updated to include the correct spelling of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and to reflect the correct year of the Utah Lake closure. — Ed.