Mar 10, 2022 · 2 min read

What Can Plants Teach Us About Treating Brain Disease?

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From Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s, neurodegenerative diseases are on the rise — yet few therapies exist to combat them. That’s why the Collaborative Pairs program at CZI’s Neurodegeneration Challenge Network (NDCN) is bringing together scientists to explore new ideas and new approaches.

Jing-Ke Weng, an expert in plant evolution in  MIT’s Department of Biology, might seem like a strange person to consult about human brain disease. But he has teamed up with MIT biology colleague Ankur Jain to find new ways to study and treat neurodegeneration by harnessing plant cells and the rich diversity of molecules those cells contain.

Learn more about how the NDCN empowers scientists to pursue bold ideas in order to accelerate the science of neurodegeneration — and ultimately, the path to treatments.

Also read: 2 Stanford Researchers Are Using AI To See More in the Brain

Illustration of two people in a colorful, verdant forest with the sun setting

What if we could borrow a superpower from plants to make progress on neurodegenerative disease?

 Illustration of a woman with a painful expression presses hand to head overlaid with an illustration of the brain

In some neurodegenerative diseases, molecules such as proteins and RNA can misfold. They stick to each other and form clumps that can potentially injure or even kill brain cells.

Illustration of a gold mountainscape and various lines reaching toward the sky with flowers on the ends.

This clumping has rarely been observed in plants, which evolved differently to survive in so many environments on land.

Two people in a lab in conversation as they both examine a test tube. One person says, “Could we learn from plants to improve human health?” The other responds, “We think so.”

Illustration of two people in white lab coats with masks on, sitting in a lab working on a research project

With CZI support, our labs are working together for the first time. We are using specially engineered plant cells containing the human molecules that clump together.

Illustration of a test tube overlaid with an illustration of a hand, plant, and chemical compound

In these cells, we can test millions of compounds to see how they interact with the sticky molecules and find ones that stop the sticking.

Illustration of two people smiling, one holding a cup of tea the other holding a ginger root

Some of the compounds we’re testing come from plants themselves, including traditional medicines. We believe they offer new hope for understanding and treating ALS, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Learn more about how the NDCN empowers scientists to pursue bold ideas in order to accelerate the science of neurodegeneration — and ultimately, the path to treatments.

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