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Reversing aging

neurons compared to the billions of neurons in the human brain, the worms have a genetic makeup similar to humans making them prime for testing drugs.

Researchers in Pierce-Shimomura's lab engineered a new strain of worm that develops Alzheimer's disease. Just as in humans, a subset of the worm's brain degenerates in "middle age" which conveniently is only 5-days-old in the tiny worms. The dying neurons can be visualized easily through the transparent body. The researchers have recently discovered that candidate drugs for treating human Alzheimer's disease also prevent the death of neurons in their worm model. This result provides the basis to use their worm model to search for new drugs that may delay or prevent neurodegeneration in humans.

It will be up to Ben-Yakar to develop the novel optical techniques and microfluidic devices capable of determining within a matter of seconds which drugs are effective at repairing or regenerating neurons within the worms.

Ben-Yakar, whose engineering feats already include developing a precise laser nanosurgery for nerve regeneration studies in C. elegans and the first laser microscalpels capable of removing cancerous cells without damaging neighboring cells, said the worms will be genetically engineered to have color-coded neurons with florescent probes. Neurons in the worm that emit a strong florescent signal will indicate that the specific neurons in the worm are healthy and that the drug being tested is working.

"Using Adela's microfluidic system, we will automate the monitoring of the nervous system, enabling us to test how millions of candidate medicines might prevent or delay neurodegeneration," said Pierce-Shimomura, an assistant professor in the Section of Neurobiology. "A drug screen of this size has never been attempted."

Research is personal

For Ben-Yakar and Pierce-Shimomura, the research is as much about scientific discovery as it is a personal cause

Contact: Melissa Mixon
University of Texas at Austin

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