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UTSA Scientists Study Potential Drug Target For Alzheimer's

Brain health research is a major focus at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Scientists in one lab are working on a new theory about what may cause Alzheimer’s disease and potential ways to treat it.

A laboratory in UTSA’s Bioscience Engineering building houses thousands and thousands of glass slides to slip under microscopes. They contain tiny slices of tissue from the brains of humans and animals.

Samples are kept at incredibly cold temperatures, about -80 degrees Centigrade.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
(left to right) Visiting scholar Won-Haeng Lee, Hyoung-gon Lee, Ph.D., and UTSA neurobiology graduate Haeun Kim are conduct brain research at UTSA.


Hyoung-gon Lee, Ph.D., is researching how brain cells degenerate during the course of the memory-robbing disease Alzheimer’s.

"We have no cure," Lee said. "Why don’t we have a cure? Because we don’t understand."

When neurons are damaged, they don’t regenerate. Those cells are not capable of division.

That’s why one of Lee’s findings is intriguing. A study of brain tissue from Alzheimer’s patients after death show their neurons were attempting to divide.

"Actually, the neurons try to divide, but they cannot do it," Lee explained. "So later, they decide to go die."

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
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Hyoung-gon Lee, Ph.D., looks at brain tissue samples under a microscope in this lab at UTSA.


Understanding the mechanisms that lead to the death of neurons is crucial to finding a target for future medicines to treat Alzheimer’s. If scientists can pinpoint the pathway creating the abnormal attempt of the neuron to divide, that pathway could be targeted with a drug, perhaps a therapy like a cell cycle inhibitor used to fight some cancers, Lee says.

"If our pathway, like we believe now, is the primary one and an important one, then it could be a good drug target and eventually we could develop a cure for the disease," Lee added.

Recent UTSA neurobiology graduate Haeun Kim works with the DNA samples and cell lines that are part of this project. "It requires a lot of patience, you know, because obviously you don’t get the results right away," she stated.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Samples of human and animal brain cells are kept on glass slides in this lab at UTSA.


Kim noted our society is aging quickly. Answers won’t come in time to help many seniors whose golden years aren’t so golden with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Costs are enormous. An estimated quarter of a billion dollars each year just in the U-S. That’s why this young scientist is excited to be working on a project that could be one key to unlocking a major mystery.

"Working here might contribute to the big breakthrough in curing Alzheimer’s disease," Kim added.

Lee and his co-investigators are developing an animal model to look more precisely at cell death in the Alzheimer’s affected brain.





Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.