Feature Story

Uncorking the Secret Behind Slowing Alzheimer's Disease

alzheimers disease laboratory student research

Want to keep your mind sharp? Consider red wine.

Scientific studies have shown that resveratrol, a compound found in grape skin, can protect people from numerous health problems, and even slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

There are two problems, however. You need to drink gallons of wine each day to realize these benefits, and the alternative – buying active, pure resveratrol – is expensive.

That is where a faculty-student research team at Widener University is stepping in. Senior Samantha Scoma, led by faculty mentors and Associate Professors Krishna Bhat and Alexis Nagengast, is using green chemistry techniques to create compounds that are chemically similar to resveratrol – without the high cost.

“Then, we use a genetic crossing scheme to generate fruit flies that have Alzheimer’s disease and track the progression of the disease based on changes in the way the eyes look,” said Scoma, a biochemistry and biology double major. “Despite their small size, flies are ideal test subjects since they share roughly 60 percent of their genes with humans.”

This research isn’t only a life-changing opportunity for Scoma; it also has the potential to save lives. As the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease slowly destroys the brain, leaving its victims unable to perform simple tasks or recall memories. No medications are currently available to treat the disease’s progression.

“If we discover a compound that works even better than resveratrol to reverse Alzheimer’s disease, the implications could be tremendous,” Nagengast said. “We could potentially change the lives of thousands of people living with this devastating disease.”

The Research Track

Scoma is spending her summer on campus – mixing compounds under Bhat’s direction or testing resveratrol dosages on fruit flies in Nagengast’s laboratory.

This is the second summer she is participating in Summer Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, a program that allows undergraduate students to conduct faculty-mentored research and benefit from weekly activities that boost their career-readiness and share research across disciplines.

“Undergraduate research is an important part of the sciences,” said Bhat. “These projects give students the research experience that can lead to publishing scientific articles, presenting at conferences, and preparing for future careers.”

Scoma’s first experience with undergraduate research was freshman year. She took a first-semester seminar that exposed her to the numerous faculty and student projects on campus. Then, second semester, she dove right in.

At other universities, it can be hard to find research opportunities because they are reserved for graduate students. But, at Widener, I hopped right in freshman year. — Samantha Scoma '20

The research has opened many opportunities for Scoma. She attended several national conferences and events, including the National Fly Conference in Philadelphia, and met neuroscientist Lisa Genova, who authored the best-selling novel “Still Alice” about a college professor’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Now, this topic is really close to my heart,” Scoma said. “I never thought I would be going to Alzheimer’s walks or donating to the cause, but I am.”

As Scoma prepares her senior thesis based on this research, she is also studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and considering what career path to take after graduation.

“I’ve always been set on being a medical doctor, but now I’ve learned that I enjoy research and discovering new things,” she said. “I’d like to get a job in a lab first so I can be exposed to research in a hospital setting. That way I can decide if my future will be a PhD, an MD – or both.”

Scoma credits this clear direction to the faculty advising her along the way.

“I’m really close with my advisers,” she said. “They are definitely as invested in my research as I am. They have shaped my experience here at Widener.”

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