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Cutting Edge

Dr Gregory Farrelly FAITH MAGAZINE July-August 2014

Alzheimer’s and Nuclear Fusion: New Solutions to Modern Problems

Alzheimer’s Disease

As people live longer, thanks to better nutrition, healthcare and improved working conditions, an increasing number of elderly patients are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, involving the long-term loss of memory. Now scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have discovered that a protein could help in the prevention or delay of this disease.1

The protein transthyretin (TTR) is formed as a “tetramer”, a four-unit structure. Old age can cause the tetramers to disintegrate into aggregates called amyloids, accumulating in various organs and causing diseases. In the mid-1990s, however, several laboratories indicated that TTR in the brain might actually protect against other amyloids such as amyloid beta, associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

In transgenic “Alzheimer’s mice”, which overproduce amyloid beta, TTR overproduction was found to reduce the memory deficits of the mice. Further experiments showed that TTR tetramers bind to amyloid beta, inhibiting it from forming more harmful types of aggregate.

What both these areas of research exemplify is something at the heart of the Faith movement’s philosophical theology, namely the “ecosystem” of nature and spirit. Natural being is not random but relational, precisely because there is an intrinsic order of one thing to another in a hierarchy of being. 

TTR is mainly produced in the liver and in those parts of the brain where cerebrospinal fluid is made, but it can also be produced at low levels in neurons. Experiments proved that Heat Shock Factor 1 (HSF1), a sort of protective switch against some types of cellular stress, could bind to the TTR gene’s promoter (a segment of DNA near the TTR gene). Two stimulators of HSF1, heat and celastrol, boosted HSF1 binding and TTR production.

The researchers found that HSF1’s boosting of TTR production occurred in neuronal-type cells, rather than in liver cells where most TTR is produced. In fact, in liver cells HSF1 caused a slight decrease in TTR production. Liver-cell TTR, produced at up to 20 times the levels of neuronal TTR, is more likely to be hazardous than protective. In amyloid-beta-overproducing Alzheimer’s mice, researchers found that the frequency of HSF1 binding to the TTR gene promoter was doubled in the Alzheimer’s mice compared to ordinary mice.

The research team are now thinking about developing a small∂ molecular compound, maybe delivered as a pill, to boost HSF1 activity and/or TTR production in neurons, so preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s dementia.

Nuclear Fusion

As the global population increases and ages, and the amount of energy used per person increases, the world is facing an energy crisis. A number of alternative energies exist: solar power, wind power, biomass fuels, etc. There has been a stagnation in the building of nuclear power stations in Europe as fears concerning safety have mounted, especially in the wake of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, and the problem of the disposal and storage of radioactive waste materials has not been solved. Meanwhile, physicists have been working on developing fusion reactors. These seek to harness the energy released when light nuclei, usually deuterium and tritium, are fused.

The problems involved are immense. Huge densities and temperatures (millions of degrees, hotter even than the Sun’s core) are required to overcome the electrostatic repulsion between the positively charged nuclei involved. The two leading techniques have been inertial confinement and magnetic confinement, involving huge magnetic fields to contain a plasma in a doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.

Essentially, these fusion reactors form energy just as stars do; we are, in that sense, building stars on earth. However, it is impossible to achieve steady-state output with these devices. Therefore, an older technology is being revamped at the Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics in Germany.2 This relies on a device called a stellarator, which is smaller and cheaper (a mere €1bn!). It uses a complex arrangement of  superconducting magnetic coils, as shown below.

The scientists involved hope to obtain magnetic confinement for 30 minutes (compared with up to 30 seconds for tokamaks) in the next few years, making it a relatively steady-state system.

What both these areas of research exemplify is something at the heart of the Faith movement’s philosophical theology, namely the “ecosystem” of nature and spirit. Natural being is not random but relational, precisely because there is an intrinsic order of one thing to another in a hierarchy of being.

The Alzheimer’s research demonstrates that a molecule acts differently in different contexts – it is adaptive. The stellarator research demonstrates the uniqueness of the human mind. Attempts at nuclear fusion are not part of some biological adaptive “survival of the fittest” process but show our transcendence of a merely material law of control and direction. The human mind is the master, rather than the servant, of material reality and this is precisely because we are spirit as a well as body, the two natures united in each one of us as person.

Notes:

1X Wang, F Cattaneo, L Ryno, J Hulleman, N Reixach, JN Buxbaum. The Systemic Amyloid Precursor Transthyretin (TTR) Behaves as a Neuronal Stress Protein Regulated by HSF1 in SH-SY5Y Human Neuroblastoma Cells and APP23 Alzheimer’s Disease Model Mice. Journal of Neuroscience, 2014; 34 (21): 7253 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4936-13.2014.

2Edwin Cartlidge, Rebirth of the Stellarator, Physics World Vol 27 No 5, May 2014.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2014