Biogeochemistry & neuroscience

Scientia Professor David Waite leads a team of 14 highly experienced researchers called the BioGEMS (Biogeochemical Engineering, Management and Systems) research group, which sits within the Water Research Centre at UNSW. While the team is primarily concerned with solving environmental problems through the examination of biogeochemical processes within natural and engineered water systems, they are also drawing on their geochemical skills to investigate issues in some seemingly unusual places.

In this fascinating Q&A, Professor Waite explains how the team is helping in the fight against neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. 

Undertaking research to mitigate neurological disorders seems to be a departure from your usual focus area of water, how did this project come about?

It might seem strange but the concepts of nutrient supply and oxidant generation, which are central to our work in natural systems and water, are also key to the fundamental science behind neurological disease.

In fact, a lot of the work we do in natural systems is underpinned by research that has been done in a medical context. Much of the chemistry is based on what’s called Fenton chemistry, which refers to the fact that some metals have the catalytic ability to generate highly reactive hydroxyl radicals, one of the most powerful oxidants known.

By applying this medical research to progress our work on coastal borders, rivers and lakes, we actually progressed beyond where the medical researchers had got to. We realised that we could then apply our knowledge back to the medical context to help explain the “biogeochemical” processes involved in neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

For example, one of the key causes of Parkinson’s disease is the formation of what’s called neuromelanin (NM) in the brain. We can take our fundamental knowledge of biomolecules to model why this happens and then use this to develop appropriate treatments.

How far off is this research from coming to fruition?

It’s not that distant from clinical trials. We now know that metals like iron and copper are key to driving the formation of some of those problematic biomolecules in the brain. We also know how to stop their formation: you add particular organic chemicals to lock up the iron and copper to stop that oxidation.

This is called chelation therapy and is already one of the key therapies for Parkinson’s, but we still don’t know, at a fundamental level, how it works. It’s a useful therapy but it is hit and miss -if you add a compound that’s too strong, it has the unwanted side effect of locking up all the iron in the body - a real problem because we really need iron.

Are you working with any collaborators in this space?

We have teamed up with our PLuS Alliance colleagues at King’s College in London, particularly Professor Bob Hider, a specialist in chelation therapy, to look at these compounds. We’re also beginning work with colleagues in The Florey – Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, to look at these processes in relation to Alzheimer’s disease and ageing. We are using the Australian Synchrotron [a machine about the size of a football field that accelerates electrons to almost the speed of light] to study the transformation of iron locked up with biomolecules, and to look at how it changes through the ageing process.

How are those projects funded?

We started by doing this work off the back of other projects, but now have some funding through the PLuS Alliance. Also, now that we’ve published in this space, in high quality journals in the neuroscience field, we can start to apply for funding from medical research entities for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and so on.

What interests you most about this research?

I’m actually shocked by the lack of understanding of those processes and it scares me that we know so little about the key drivers to those critical disorders. I think that the knowledge and skill set the BioGEMS team has can help solve some of these problems and uncover (or maybe even fit together) some of the pieces of the jigsaw.

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