Tiny protein structures called amyloids are key to understanding certain devastating age-related diseases. Amyloids form plaques in the brain, and are the main culprits in the progression of Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.
“In patients you see these huge plaques, but that’s the endpoint of the disease. It’s not the beginning,” said Matthew Lew, PhD, assistant professor in the Preston M. Green Department of Electrical & Systems Engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science.
Lew explained how amyloids are so tiny that they can’t be visualized early in the disease progression using conventional microscopic techniques. He hopes a new imaging technique he helped develop will help doctors see amyloids in early stages of age-related diseases.
“Maybe we can design therapeutics that can attack the disease at a more basic level before too many cells are killed, before you see the amyloid plaques in a CT scan,” said Lew.
Lew and a team of engineers at Washington University in St. Louis developed a new technique that uses temporary fluorescence, causing the amyloids to flash, or “blink.” This allows them to see the problematic proteins in real-time.
Currently, scientists seeking to visualize amyloids use large amounts of a fluorescent material to coat the proteins in a test tube. When using a fluorescence microscope, the amyloids glow. However, it isn’t known how dyes that are permanently attached might alter the basic structure and behavior of the amyloid. It’s also difficult to discern the nanoscale structures at play using this bulk experimental technique.
Lew helped develop the new technique that makes them blink. It’s called transient amyloid binding (TAB) imaging.