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SHS student conducts groundbreaking Alzheimer’s disease research, wins Intel STS award

| February 26, 2015
SHS teacher Nathaniel Covert and student Muhammad Ali

Intel Science Talent Research competition semifinalist Muhammad Ali & Shaker High School Science teacher Nathaniel Covert.

Alzheimer’s is a disease that accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, but has no cure. Shaker High School senior, Muhammad Ali, is trying to change that.

For three years he has conducted research focused on stopping the disease early on. Ali explains that a person may be 60 years old and have molecular malfunctions going on in their brain, but symptoms such as memory loss may not appear until ten years later.

“I’ve employed drug companies with information that is really crucial,” said Ali. “Currently there are no effective drugs out there. Companies have tried to attack the symptoms but its proven ineffective. I am interested in a new branch of Alzheimer’s drug research, looking to modify the disease at its core and at its basic pathology, stopping it ten years before any symptoms occur.”

Ali conducted his research with the guide of an elective course at Shaker High School, called “Science Research,” advised by science teacher Nathaniel Covert. In addition, he was mentored by RPI Professor Dr. Chunyu Wang and UAlbany Professor Dr. Igor Lednev.

Ali explained that plaques or conglomerates of proteins are known to cause Alzheimer’s when they accumulate and asphyxiate themselves around neurons in the brain, thus preventing neuronal transmission. A single protein, called Amyloid Beta, made up of 40 amino acids, is the major constituent of these plaques, which end up causing Alzheimer’s disease.

“This protein in and of itself, basically causes Alzheimer’s,” he said.

Through continued research, Ali found that a single change in the 40 residues of Amyloid Beta completely changes its functional role, by preventing it from asphyxiating around neurons.

“It goes from a disease causing protein to a disease preventing protein,” he said. “This has a lot of potential in future therapeutic drugs, because you can basically employ this model, apply it to a drug, target a specific region, and make it stronger to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

In addition to Ali’s ground breaking work about the protein, he also created a new protocol for the synthetic fabrication of the protein. Previously, labs around the world that wished to study this protein paid around $900 a milligram to obtain samples. Ali has found a way to fabricate the same protein for just $80 per milligram using a technology called Recombinant DNA Technology. Ali reprogrammed bacterial DNA to force bacteria to make the protein for him.

“Research labs in the area are already using his new protocol and he expects many more labs around the country and possibly internationally will adopt his protocol as well,” said Shaker Science Department Supervisor, Keith Bogert.

Ali submitted his work to the prestigious Intel Science Talent Research competition. Students are selected based upon their scientific research and also on their overall potential as future leaders of the scientific community. Ali was one of 300 semifinalists, competing against 1,800 students nationwide. He and Shaker High School have been awarded $1,000 each.

“He’s the hardest working student we’ve ever had,” said Science teacher Nathaniel Covert.

“The course is really not designed to do the research, the course is designed to coach kids while they do the research,” added Bogert. “The students have research that is extremely far reaching and many of them will ride their research right to and through college. Mr. Covert has done an exceptional job on coaching these kids and trying to get them to do real, genuine scientific research.”

Ali plans to major in biochemistry in the fall, with the goal of becoming a research scientist or physician scientist.

For more information on the Intel Science Talent Research competition, click here.

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