Alzheimer's and Dementia Awareness Month: OVC Graduate Students Pursue Antioxidant Therapies to Treat the Disease

June 19, 2024

Imagine standing in front of your front door with a key in hand, but not remembering how to use it. That’s Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a chronic neurodegenerative condition that causes irreparable damage to the neurological pathways in the brain, interrupting communication between the cells and leading to a gradual decline in memory, thinking ability, and overall cognitive function. 

June is Alzheimer’s and Dementia Awareness Month. AD accounts for 60-80 per cent of all dementia cases and according to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, over 1.7 million Canadians will have dementia by 2050. There is no known cure, but several graduate students in Dr. Bettina Kalisch’s lab in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) are testing antioxidant compounds to combat oxidative stress implicated in the progression of AD. 

“We still have more to learn about antioxidants, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that oxidative stress and oxidative damage are contributing factors in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Kalisch. 

2024 PhD graduate Dr. Andrila Collins tests antioxidant co-drug VANL-100

PhD graduate and inaugural recipient of the Black Canadian Graduate Student Scholarship in Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Andrila Collins began AD research in Kalisch’s lab in the final year of her undergraduate program. 

In her master’s research paper Naturally Occurring Antioxidant Therapy in Alzheimer's Disease, Collins reviewed the link between oxidative stress and Alzheimer's disease, while exploring the potential of natural antioxidants as treatments.
In her PhD paper VANL-100 Attenuates Beta-Amyloid-Induced Toxicity in SH-SY5Y Cells, Collins tested an existing antioxidant co-drug on an AD model. VANL-100, co-patented by Dr. Tarek Saleh, Chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences, showed neuroprotective properties in Collins’ preclinical model and a potency 1,000 greater than its parent components.

“By chemically linking two antioxidant compounds we can potentially create a super drug that can carry out the beneficial effects of two compounds in one,” says Collins. We could also use the new drug at a lower dose than the two parent compounds, which is important to recognize because some antioxidants can have harmful effects at very high doses.”

MSc candidate Jordan Hickey conducts pre-clinical cannabidiol (CBD) trials 

MSc candidate Jordan Hickey published a research paper Modulation of Oxidative Stress and Neuroinflammation by Cannabidiol (CBD): Promising Targets for the Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease where he examines the pre-clinical potential of CBD, a non-psychoactive compound from Cannabis sativa, as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease by focusing on its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties. Currently, he is working on his second paper exploring the protective properties of CBD and THC against the toxic effects of AD in a pre-clinical trial. 

Hickey advocates for further research on readily available antioxidant compounds like CBD and THC, rather than trying to create new ones. 

“One of the main things that my lab and a lot of others are looking at are compounds that are currently available to treat different disease types rather than finding new therapies which take years to develop,” says Hickey. “I think it makes sense to further research into compounds people can pick up at the drugstore, for example, that could improve their outcomes against the onset or progression of AD and other diseases.” 

What’s next for OVC's graduate students

Collins, who received her PhD at the June 2024 U of G Convocation ceremony hopes to continue her research while teaching others. 

“I am still very passionate about Alzheimer's disease, neuroscience and neurodegenerative conditions,” says Collins. “My hope is to remain in academia as a professor. As a graduate student in Dr. Kalisch’s lab, I had an opportunity to work as a TA and found a huge liking to teaching other students.”

Hickey recently presented his CBD and THC research poster at the 17th Canadian Neuroscience Meeting that he attended in Vancouver thanks to a travel scholarship.  

As he works on defending his MSc in Biomedical Sciences later this summer, he is preparing to start a medical degree at St. George’s University in Grenada this fall. 

While conducting AD research Hickey became aware of the challenges surrounding access to primary medical care that prompted him to pursue a medical degree.

“A lot of individuals don't have access to primary care physicians and as a result don’t have the knowledge about Alzheimer's disease or disease in general,” says Hickey. “Unfortunately, Alzheimer's is such a complicated disease that we're currently not able to catch it until the late stage. We need more people doing this kind of research.”

AD research continues in Kalisch’s lab with CIHR Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient Helen Chen pursuing her MSc. Chen is interested in researching the impact of antioxidants on the formation of plaques that contribute to brain cell damage and memory loss associated with AD.


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