Groundbreaking research by Dr. Joy Goto, a Fresno State chemistry professor, played a key role in developing a new approach to understanding the role of environmental toxins in ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, published Wednesday by the Royal Society of London in the biological research journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B,” indicates that chronic exposure to an environmental toxin called BMAA may increase risk of neurodegenerative illness.

Conducted by scientists at the Institute for EthnoMedicine, a nonprofit medical research organization in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, the report indicates that exposure to BMAA can trigger ALS and other neurodegenerative illnesses in vulnerable individuals.

Scientists conducted two separate experiments lasting 140 days on vervets, small African monkeys. Some were fed fruit dosed with BMAA developed neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits.

Goto’s research, conducted prior to the Institute for EthnoMedicine’s work, involved fruit flies. Seven Fresno State chemistry students assisted her in determining that the dietary amino acid L-serine helped protect fruit flies from the BMAA.

Goto, who uses her training in bioinorganic chemistry and neuroscience to contribute to the understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, is a member of the 50-scientist collaboration operating in 28 institutions across 10 countries. The Institute for EthnoMedicine is dedicated to discovering new cures for neurodegenerative diseases from studies of indigenous peoples.

Goto’s initial work was conducted with an undergraduate, Jonathan Rochin of Fresno, who   graduated in 2013 with a B.S. in biology. Goto currently has two graduate students and seven undergraduates working on all aspects related to BMAA (the cyanobacteria neurotoxin) either in fruit flies or human neuronal cultures.

The graduate students are Manpreet Baidwan of India and Pedro Diaz-Parga of Clovis.

The undergraduates are Benjamin Tanielian, Alexandra Saxberg, Harmala Singh, Dureshika Ranasinghe, Mider Thao and recent graduate, Shayan Zoghi (B.S. Biology), all of Fresno; Richard Moua of Clovis and Jazmin Arias of Visalia.

“We provided some of the first studies showing that BMAA causes neurodegenerative illness in fruit flies,” Goto said. “We found that adding BMAA to fruit fly chow caused the flies to develop paralysis and other neurological deficits.”

Her findings were used in a submission to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin human clinical trials. The Fresno State team’s preliminary studies on fruit flies takes on an added significance, the Royal Society of London said in its announcement this week.

“Our findings show that chronic exposure to BMAA can trigger Alzheimer’s-like brain tangles and amyloid deposits,” said Dr. Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist at the Institute for EthnoMedicine and lead author of the study. “As far as we are aware, this is the first time researchers have been able to successfully replicate brain tangles and amyloid deposits in an animal model through exposure to an environmental toxin.”

“This study takes a leap forward in showing causality — that BMAA causes disease,” said Dr. Deborah Mash, director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank and co-author of the study.

Since fruit flies have short life cycles, Goto believes her laboratory will continue to contribute to discovery of new drugs to treat these most serious illnesses.

She credits the dedication and hard work of her students.

“Research is the most rewarding aspect of my job because it embodies mentoring, teaching and creativity all driven by the students,” Goto said. “Our fruit fly work is just one part of a larger consortium hoping to find a cure or a way to dramatically slow down the progression of protein misfolding neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s) and Parkinson’s disease.”

Goto’s students, who are chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and biotechnology majors in the College of Science and Mathematics, have received research support from critical programs and funding sources on campus: the California State University – Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (CSU-LSAMP), Chemistry Department Honors Program, Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP), College of Science and Mathematics, Faculty Sponsored Student Research Awards (CSM, FSSRA), Division of Undergraduate Studies Undergraduate Research Grant, California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) Bridges to Doctorate Program.

“If all Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students could contribute and experience research, we would have that many more brilliant minds trying to solve the most devastating biomedical health problems today,” Goto said.

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