While UC Berkeley doesn’t have medical centers like UCSF and Stanford to suck up all that Prop. 71 stem-cell money, it does have Randy Schekman. He runs a lab that has produced dozens of publications and employs more than 45 researchers. Schekman’s own research on the development of membranes in cells bearing nuclei won him a Lasker Foundation award, commonly a precursor to the Nobel Prize. Schekman not only oversees all life sciences at Cal, but also is working to determine how mutant forms of a protein called presenilin-1 contribute to the pathology of Alzheimer’s. It’s known that the deviant presenilins lead to the creation of protein fragments called peptides that accumulate in plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. To better understand the process, the professor hopes to introduce into stem cells a DNA blueprint for the mutant PS1 proteins. He’ll then observe the stem cells as they grow and differentiate into nerve cells to pinpoint when during brain development the bad proteins have their effect. “The dream is to be able to create drugs that suppress peptide productions,” he says. “We won’t even have to test on animals or humans; everything can be done in a petri dish.” It’s the sort of thing that gets a student thinking.
Professor of linguistics, UC Berkeley