Decades of research into the chemistry behind the colorful luminescent glow of jellyfish have resulted in several major advances in the field of biotechnology and recently earned three research scientists a 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
But according to Mark Underwood, co-founder and president of the biotech company Quincy Bioscience, the contributions to science and medicine made by the three prize-winning researchers, (Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien), may be much greater than first realized.
"We believe their work has unearthed a possible key for halting the onset and progression of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative diseases," says Underwood.
In 1962, researcher Osamu Shimomura discovered a protein within the jellyfish which glowed in the presence of calcium. This glowing protein, which Shimomura named aequorin, has since become one of the most important tools in biochemistry because of its ability to attach itself to other biochemical components.
This glowing protein can be used as a tag to illuminate previously invisible biochemical processes deep within cells. Combined with the enhancements made by researchers Chalfie and Tsien, the protein has become an invaluable tool in the laboratory.
But Underwood says that the glowing protein's ability to bind itself to calcium may prove to be a far greater asset for scientists than its use as a colorful tagging mechanism.
"Too much calcium within a brain cell impairs its function," says Underwood. "Unfortunately, we lose our ability to regulate brain cell calcium as we age because at about forty, our brains produce less calcium-binding proteins, allowing calcium levels to rise throughout the nervous system. Neurons are flooded with dangerous levels of calcium and our brains slow down."
Aequorin, with its ability to bind to calcium and lower its concentration within a cell, can be used as a replacement for our own missing calcium-binding proteins, and thereby slow age-related loss of cognitive function, memory, and alertness.
The jellyfish protein is very similar to the calcium binding proteins found in the human nervous system which become depleted in age-related diseases like Alzheimer's.
Data demonstrating the neuroprotective ability of aequorin was first presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2006. Additionally, the jellyfish protein has no known level of toxicity to humans.
"We are truly blessed by the work of these Nobel-winning scientists for their vision and dedication. Their ground-breaking work has provided the opportunities to pursue the new application of this protein and to offer hope to the many that are afflicted with age-related disorders," says Underwood.