More than gray matter

Thanks to Indiana State University alumnus Deepak Kumar, Ph.D. ’10, science has made a major breakthrough in understanding how the brain functions the way it does when someone develops Alzheimer’s disease.

The brain is a vast and mysterious operating system — the epicenter of every human body. It sends signals to the entire body and runs all the necessary processes to sustain life.

Most of the time, the brain does all this without fail and for the entirety of our lives, but sometimes this amazing organ breaks down. And because the brain is so complex, we still don’t understand some of the most common — and lethal — ailments.

Take Alzheimer’s, for instance. The most common form of dementia, the disease irreversibly and progressively interferes with cognitive functioning and behavioral abilities. Over time, Alzheimer’s will eventually destroy the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

Thanks to Indiana State University alumnus Deepak Kumar, Ph.D. ’10, science has made a major breakthrough in understanding how the brain functions the way it does when someone develops Alzheimer’s disease.

A research fellow under Robert Moir as part of Rudy Tanzi’s unit in the department of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Kumar has discovered the amyloid-peptide protects against microbial infection in mouse and worm models of Alzheimer’s disease. The amyloid-β peptide is thought to cause neuronal death in Alzheimer’s disease.

Aβ forms aggregates in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which are a trademark of the disease. Aβ and its tendency for aggregation are widely viewed as intrinsically abnormal. However, in new work, Kumar and his fellow researchers show Aβ is a natural antibiotic that protects the brain from infection.

Many medical professionals are calling Kumar and his team’s findings the building blocks of the biggest breakthrough in Alzheimer’s in years. Kumar’s findings highlight just how much scientists still don’t know about of Alzheimer’s and what causes the disease.

Kumar’s next major project aims to investigate the role of the human gut in Alzheimer’s disease research. The gut contains a multitude of microorganisms collectively referred to as the microbiome. Studies have shown there may a potential between the gut and brain and how the microbiome can impact the development of the brain’s innate immune cells. The main goal of the project is to further examine the role of various probiotic strains of bacteria and their secondary metabolites on the progression of early Alzheimer’s disease.

After completing his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Kumar first set out on a pharmaceutical career track.

“As a microbiologist in the quality control division of AstraZeneca, I had the opportunity to witness the revamping of academic theories and conceptions for real-world applications,” he said. “AstraZeneca helped me gain invaluable pharmaceutical experience, but my passion for research was far stronger, and so after five years in industry, I pursued a Ph.D. in microbiology in Dr. Kathleen Dannelly’s laboratory at Indiana State University.”

While at State, the focus of Kumar’s doctoral research was the methicillin-resistant S. aureus pathogenesis, which was raising a lot of concern then in health care and community settings. It’s the bacteria strain MRSA that is often associated with infecting healthy people who have not been hospitalized or had any type of surgical procedure in the past year. Dannelly and Kumar continue to collaborate on projects, and Dannelly continues the work they began together.

Kumar not only conducted research during his time at Indiana State, but also he served as a teaching assistant, which gave him the chance to interact with other students with varying backgrounds as well as varying fields of study.

“The immensely rewarding teaching experience that I gained at ISU has instilled in me a strong sense of self-competition and has impressed upon me the ceaseless and vehement need to better myself in presentation and teamwork skills,” Kumar said.

“Research in AD at MGH/Harvard has been a unique experience that has provided me an opportunity to apply thought, reason, and ideas to a combination of three areas of biology — microbiology, immunology and neuroscience,” said Kumar. “Despite its fair share of ups and downs, the joy of contributing to mankind’s evergreen endeavor to improving the quality of life is enormously gratifying.”

According to State biology Professor Rusty Gonser, Kumar’s success is a testament to the strength of a State degree.

“We produce the foundational skills and knowledge, that our students can leave ISU and make an enormous impacts on the world,” said Gonser of Kumar’s success at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. “You hear all the taglines. Deepak is an example that those taglines are true. ‘More from day one.’ ‘There’s more to Blue.’ He has shown that an ISU education can let you do anything.”

One Comment

  1. Very interesting article, as I’m getting older I fear this disease because of simple little things that happen day after day, A cure would benefit a large number of people, including myself.

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