Local Students To Mix With Stars of Alzheimer's Research World

August 24, 2000

Ten high school students from the Rochester area will join college students and researchers from around the world at a gathering at the University of Rochester Medical Center this weekend to discuss the molecular roots of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

It's a rare opportunity for the students from schools in Monroe and Wayne counties. The students will be paired with young mentors, college students from institutions around the East Coast who are earning both their medical degrees and their doctorates simultaneously. Those pairs of students will spend time together, talk about college life and careers in research, and discuss the latest findings on diseases like Alzheimer's with researchers from around the globe at the Schmitt Symposium Friday through Sunday, Aug. 25 to 27, , at the Aab Institute of Biomedical Sciences. The event is sponsored by the Rochester-based Schmitt Foundation, along with the National Institute on Aging and several industrial sponsors.

The involvement of area students is part of an ongoing effort by the University to reach out to the community and give local youngsters opportunities they may not find elsewhere. Every summer the campus teems with students from kindergarten through high school who attend computer camps, take part in laboratory research, and tour facilities and meet with faculty members. Organizers say this week's event, matching promising high school students with medical and graduate students just beginning their research careers, may be the first of its kind nationwide.

"It takes a lot to be a successful scientist," says Howard Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., director of the neuroscience graduate program. "It takes someone who is intrinsically curious and who is persistent. Most of all, the person needs to be creative. It's the creativity that comes from being willing to think differently than the way one has been taught that leads to the real revolutions in science."

Federoff initiated the outreach program to give budding scientists a thorough and exciting look at life at the front lines of scientific research. "These students will spend this weekend with some of the leading physicians and biomedical scientists from around the world, discussing the discoveries they've made recently. It's very possible that someday, what we hear this weekend will result in new ways to treat or even prevent Alzheimer's or other diseases. We hope that the students will come away with a renewed interest and commitment in biomedical careers."

Participants will discuss cell-cycle genes, strips of DNA that guide how the cells in our bodies grow, develop, and eventually die. It's known that these genes play a central role in most cases of cancer. Too much sunlight, cigarette smoke, certain chemicals, and a host of other factors are known to damage the genes, leading to cancer.

What's new is the idea that these genes may also play a role in Alzheimer's and similar diseases of the brain. Rochester neuroscientist Paul Coleman, Ph.D., has shown that the activity levels of about 20 such genes differ tremendously between brain cells of people who had Alzheimer's and people who never had the disease.

"This is a relatively new idea, that perhaps Alzheimer's is a different or specialized form of cancer," says Coleman, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Medical Center. "It may be that brain cells are receiving an errant message to divide, but instead they end up committing suicide. This is just a hypothesis, but more and more scientists are thinking along these lines. We'll hear from several people working on this puzzle."

Coleman is hoping that research on cell-cycle genes will result in a blood test that could detect Alzheimer's years before symptoms affect a patient. "Studies have shown that up to one-fifth of people in their 20s have Alzheimer's-like changes in their brains, yet it's not until they're in their 70s that they're diagnosed. The disease has been working its mischief in the brain for 50 years without any detectable symptoms. We'd like to be able to detect the disease early on, then halt or drastically slow its progression so people can live out their lives without ever having symptoms."

Note to faculty and staff:

To register for this conference, call the Office of Continuing Professional Education at 275-4392.

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