Skip to Content

Fight Against Alzheimer’s Comes to a DU Lab

Back to Article Listing


Nicole Gordon

DU professor hopes to lay groundwork for researchers to create early detection tests for the disease

Feature  •
Martin Margittai

Martin Margittai working inside his lab at the University of Denver. Photo Courtesy: Wayne Armstrong, University of Denver

In June, the U.S. Senate proposed a $400 million increase in funding for research on Alzheimer's disease. If approved, it would be in addition to the historic $350 million increase signed into law at the close of 2015.

Students Working With Professor

This funding boost for Alzheimer's has major implications for what is currently the only leading cause of death in the United States without a prevention or cure. More than 28 million baby boomers will develop the disease over the next 35 years, according to the Alzheimer's Association, with $20 trillion in care expenses projected to eat up nearly a quarter of the nation's Medicare spending by 2040.

"It's a fatal disease and a huge dilemma for society," says Martin Margittai, an associate professor in DU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "From a medical and societal point of view, it's important that we find a cure as Alzheimer's is both care-intensive and cost-intensive."

Margittai hopes that the basic research that he carries out in his lab will contribute to the fight against Alzheimer's and related neurodegenerative diseases.

While researchers don't know for sure what causes Alzheimer's, its effects on the brain are well noted. The disease damages and kills brain cells, causing the total brain size to shrink over time. When researchers examine brain tissue afflicted with Alzheimer's under a microscope, they can identify abnormal protein build ups known as plaques and tangles.

Margittai is especially interested in the latter, tangles. In order for the proteins that make up the body's tissues to function correctly, they must have a particular shape. In patients with Alzheimer's disease, proteins known as tau become misfolded, causing them to stick together and twist into tangles that ultimately kill brain cells.

Margittai is studying these tau aggregates on a molecular level to better understand how they spread through brain cells, converting healthy proteins into those that cause tangles.

Students Using Microscope

"When healthy tau proteins bump into aggregates, they assume the same detrimental shapes," Margittai explains. "I find it fascinating that the information of tau spreading may be encoded in the structure of the earliest tangles.”

He’s particularly focused on developing a method of amplifying the aggregates to make them easier to identify. The research could help lay the groundwork for researchers to someday devise early detection tests for Alzheimer's.

Writing in Notebook

Basic research, such as Margittai's on how plaques and tangles multiply and attack the brain, is fundamental to eventually finding a treatment for a disease that is poised to create enormous strain on patients, caregivers, and the healthcare system.

"The events underlying this devastating disease are slowly revealing their molecular secrets,” Margittai says. “It is highly rewarding to work on this important research.”