Alzheimer's researcher drawn from Harvard
Research calibre and collaboration drew neuroscientist to UBC
by Hilary Thomson staff writer
At a time when most teenagers pick up nothing more important than
pizza, Weihong Song was busy picking up a medical degree to become
one of China's youngest physicians at age 19. That was 1983.
Today as the Jack Brown and Family Professorship and Chair in Alzheimer's
Disease at UBC, Song is building on almost 20 years of neuroscientific
research into genetic causes of brain disease.
"We're at the cutting edge of research in Alzheimer's disease,"
he says. "Pioneering work is going on -- it's an exciting time to
Song has an impressive health science pedigree -- his grandfather,
father and sister all practice medicine in China.
As a child he played with children a few years older and would
wait for them in school hallways. Finally a teacher invited the
five-year-old to take a test with the class. He got the top mark
and launched a stellar academic career.
After earning the highest score on his postgraduate exam, he began
work in the Dept. of Psychiatry at West China University of Medical
Sciences, one of the leading psychiatric departments in the country.
His research lab was the first in China to examine the role of
genetics in mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
After obtaining his Master of Science at Purdue University in Indiana,
he started doctoral work in causes of Alzheimer's disease, completed
his PhD at Indiana University School of Medicine in 1996 and continued
his work as a post- doctoral fellow and faculty member at Harvard
Medical School. Song joined UBC this summer.
"I came to UBC because of the calibre of its neuroscience," he
says. "As well, the atmosphere here is competitive, but also collaborative."
He is emphatic about the need for new knowledge about Alzheimer's,
a degenerative brain disease that affects 10 per cent of people
over the age of 65 years. The illness costs Canadian taxpayers almost
$5.5 billion annually to manage.
"This is one of the major health concerns for developed countries
with large aging populations," he says. "It represents a huge burden
-- for the individual, their family and for society. That's what
makes it so important to find the causes of this disease."
Scientists have identified several genes that, in a mutant form,
are implicated in causing the inherited form of the disease that
is responsible for about 10 per cent of all cases. Song looks at
how these genes -- called presenilins and amyloid precursor protein
genes -- communicate and interact.
He is particularly interested in one activity in the disease-producing
progression where a neurotoxic fragment is `born' from the amyloid
precursor protein genes. The result is the toxic amyloid beta protein
-- a known cause of brain cell death.
His work has demonstrated that presenilins are a key player in
generating this fragment and in notch signaling, a process that
dictates whether the cell will become a brain cell.
The discovery is widely recognized as a major contribution to
understanding the cause of the disease.
"We see that there is a relationship between these mutations and
the disease but we don't know the exact mechanisms -- that's what
I want to find out," says Song, who is also a member of the Brain
Research Centre -- a partnership of UBC and Vancouver Hospital and
Health Sciences Centre.
In addition to the molecular mechanisms, he examines other factors
such as stress or stroke that may contribute to the disease. Song
says there are many unknowns still to unravel but suggests that
the next breakthrough may lie with chemical inhibitors to block
the pathways to limit or stop the progress of the disease.
A recent Canada Foundation for Innovation grant will allow Song
to set up his new lab in renovated space in the Psychiatry Dept.