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New class allows students to develop Alzheimer's-fighting drug

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A new course at the University of Arizona seeks to find treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Pharmacy students’ 2020 class registration ended earlier this month with the opportunity to take the class, “From Chemistry to Cure.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, "Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior."

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There is an increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease due to having a population that is able to live longer, according to Dr. May Khanna, the assistant professor of pharmacology at the UA. 

“As you age more, your system breaks down,” Khanna said. “Unfortunately, as it breaks down, it forms plaques in your brain. These misfolded proteins are causing havoc in your brain. As this breakdown happens, you start to get dementia; you start to forget things.”

According to the 2019 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures Report, the percentage of people with Alzheimer’s dementia increases dramatically with age: 3% of people age 65-74, 17% of people age 75-84 and 32% of people age 85 or older have Alzheimer’s dementia.

These statistics provide context on the necessity of this class. It gives students a heavy real-world problem to solve.

“The students have an Alzheimer’s causing protein target that they will pick during the course and will find compounds that virtually bind to this target,” Khanna said. “They will optimize these compounds with the help of chemists and pharmaceutical scientists and progress through the whole drug discovery path.”

Students are hopeful to start a second section of the class should they get that far.

“At the end of the course, some students will progress to the second phase to create a startup company to further develop the compounds,” Khanna said.

After the drug discovery process, the students will meet with Tech Launch Arizona, the UA office that commercializes new inventions by researchers at the university. The selected students will pitch their ideas for a potential startup company to them, according to Khanna.

At the end of the course, one group’s compound will be chosen. During the following summer, that compound will be sent to a contract research organization to be tested. At that point, the group will know whether or not their solution is worth pursuing, according to Khanna.

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“What I want is for them to be armed with the understanding of what it takes to go through this process,” Khanna said. “And one of the things that’s critical for the students to experience is failure. Unfortunately, when you go through undergraduate studies, no one teaches you that failure is good. I also hope that at the end, they will experience success and the spirit of entrepreneurship.”

Regardless of the result, Khanna has underlined that the main purpose of the course is for students to develop as critical thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Christina Carrillo, a senior in pharmaceutical sciences, is taking the class next semester. She commented on whether she has had experience with entrepreneurship.

“Personally, I haven’t,” Carrillo said. “And I think a lot of us haven’t either, the people in my class. So I think it’ll be something interesting and new. But on the other hand, it’s something that we’ll be involved in within our careers whether we do pharmacy in a Walgreens or if we do pharmacy in the background of drug discovery.”

For more information, visit alz.org.


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