You wouldn’t think that a professor whose work mainly focuses on dry, arid landscapes would have much relevance to life near the Great Lakes.
But, UW-Green Bay Prof. Renee Richer’s research may help change the way the world looks at Alzheimer’s and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, by changing the way we look at… algae.
Her work is part of a larger study being led by Paul Cox, a Harvard ethnobotanist, that looks at the possibility that diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS may be treated through the use of dietary amino acids, rather than pharmaceuticals. Their research looks at island villages where Alzheimer’s and ALS are frequent versus villages where the diseases are relatively unknown. The work was profiled as a cover story for the January 2019 edition of Fortune Magazine that looked at the billions spent by big pharma as compared to the more modest approach by Wyoming’s Brain Chemistry Lab, of which Cox and Richer are a part.
Now a professor of ecology at UW-Green Bay’s Marinette Campus, Richer’s research studies how humans are exposed to cyanobacteria and their toxins and its research she got a start on while working toward her Ph.D. from Harvard in the area of environmental science and plant ecology. The research led her to work on cyanobacteria — (formerly called blue green algae) — bacteria that uses photosynthesis to convert sunlight to carbohydrates. Particularly focusing the research on arid environments in southern Africa and the Middle East, Richer has worked extensively to look at the toxins these bacteria produce and how they affect humans.
“Cyanobacteria produces some of the most deadly toxins known to man,” she said. “It turns out that one of the toxins is a neurotoxin called BMAA –Beta-N-Methylamino-L-Alanine… in the last 15-20 years or so there has been a resurgence in interest in this toxin and how it is linked to ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”
Richer’s work helped to map cyanobacteria in Qatar so that researchers could better understand the relationship between cyanobacteria, BMAA and neurodegenerative diseases.
“With the help of students, we were able to map the surface of the country,” she said of her work in Qatar. “Qatar is a relatively small country, about 11,000 square kilometers. We did a survey over the country and were able to map the coverage of the cyanobacteria and note where there might be greater exposure. Some areas… we were not able to survey, but we were able to sample more than 9,000 square kilometers of the country.”
Her work is as extraordinary in its accomplishment as it is in what it could mean for the average Wisconsin resident.
“Dr. Richer’s research has exposed air as a medium for human exposure to the neurotoxin,” said Cox. “She may be the only person in the world to map the cyanobacterial distribution of an entire country.”
But how does that research impact lives in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes?
“The organisms in the algae blooms we have in this area are the same as the ones in Qatar,” she said. “When we see harmful algae blooms in Wisconsin, those blooms produce the same cyanotoxins, the same BMAA, as we’ve been discussing in regards to ALS and Alzheimer’s.”
And future research into those same cyanotoxins may lead to information on how to stop the neurodegenerative aspects of Alzheimer’s and ALS.
“Paul Cox’s study was the first to develop an animal model where they exposed the primates to BMAA and saw the key hallmarks of neurodegeneration in the brain,” she said. “This was the first non-genetic model that can link an environmental exposure to Alzheimer’s and ALS.”
The study also seems to point to a cure for the diseases.
“During that same primate study, some primates were jointly exposed to L-serine, which protected them from the effects of BMAA,” she said.
Research from Cox’s 50-scientist consortium has focused on the possibility that the amino acid L-serine could slow the effects of BMAA in creating Alzheimer’s and ALS, as well as other progressive neurodegenerative diseases, by slowing protein misfolding, where protein cells do not fold correctly and are not corrected by protein quality control systems. Scientists feel that an accumulation of protein misfolding may be a factor in age-related neurodegenerative diseases.
The link between L-serine and these neurodegenerative diseases is now in the FDA-approved Phase II clinical trials at Dartmouth.
“The jury is still out,” Cox said, “but we will know a lot more in the year ahead.”
Cox’s study, released in January, is a baseline for study’s yet to come. Richer’s mapping of cyanobacteria in Qatar is part of that study and serves as a foundation for other research yet to come, she said.
“The pharmaceutical industry has not been successful in creating a cure,” she said. “For decades, there has been virtually nothing in the way of treatment. This research is looking into the cause of the diseases which allows us to look into prevention and also allows us to research potential treatments. Once we find a pathway to origination, we can find routes to prevent or cure the diseases.”
There are things Wisconsinites can take away from her research, however. Anyone living on a lake can use the information the research has discovered to lower their chances of developing a neurodegenerative disease.
“There is a lot or work being done on the East coast and in Europe that links people who live near lakes with cyanobacterial clusters, or blooms, with ALS,” she said. “If people are eating shellfish from waterbodies that had cyanobacterial blooms, they have a higher chance of developing ALS. People need to be thinking about the water quality in their area and the increasing occurrence of these blooms. It would be wise to stay away from participating in water sports in lakes where these blooms are occurring. This is an opportunity for those living around the lakes to protect ourselves by maintaining a higher quality of water.”
Richer and company will continue to investigate cyanobacteria and how it migrates in sediment and may contaminate ground water, and how cyanobacteria accumulates heavy metals and whether or not that impacts one’s exposure to multiple neurotoxins. UW-Green Bay undergraduates (former Marinette Campus students) Sarah Klemp and Becky Berry (Environmental Science) are working closely with Richer and Marinette Campus Associate Professor Mark Klemp, as well as Green Bay Campus professors Patricia Terry and Michael Zorn on this particular research. See more on this work.
Story by freelance writer Liz Carey. Photos submitted by Rene Richer.