Medical find brings healthy reward

UM student wins inventors prize for gene research

September 03, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Until this month, the only invention Dana Perkins could claim was a new breakfast cereal she had once dreamed up. And all that inspired concoction - Post Fruit & Fibre mixed with grits - earned her were snickers from colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a thanks-but-no-thanks note from Post's lawyers.

Her second stab at innovation, on the other hand, is looking a little more promising.

A doctoral student in pharmacology, Perkins has focused her research on a protein that might hold a key to conquering Alzheimer's and other diseases that ravage the brain.

On Sept. 14, she'll be awarded $20,000 from the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, for her work, as part of the organization's annual competition for collegiate inventors.

Sponsored by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and companies including Hewlett-Packard Co. and Corning Inc., the Collegiate Inventors Competition is designed to stoke student interest in scientific problem-solving and to deepen understanding of U.S. intellectual property laws.

Perkins, 35, is one of seven students to win the prize this year.

"To be honest, nobody believed I would win anything," she says. "I still don't believe it."

As is the case with many discoveries, Perkins stumbled upon hers in a roundabout way.

She had set out to help her adviser, university researcher Laure Aurelian, find a vaccine for herpes, a disease Aurelian has been studying for more than 30 years.

More than 10 million people in the United States are infected with the herpes simplex virus, which causes itchy and sometimes painful sores on the face or genitals, depending on which of the two types of the virus a person contracts.

Less well-known is the virus' ability to lodge in the brain - and that's where the trail leading to Perkins' discovery begins.

In the brain, one type of the herpes virus allows neurons to die, while the other type prevents it.

"I said: `Why is there such a difference between the two viruses? If one causes such destruction, why is it the other one doesn't?'" Perkins recalls.

She focused on a protein - known as ICP10PK - produced by the herpes virus. Although the protein - and the gene that manufactures it - had been known to researchers for more than two decades, nobody had thought to explore its role in the brain. In animal experiments, Perkins discovered that the protein was the substance that determined whether nerve cells infected with the herpes virus lived or died. In follow-up work, she found that the protein seems to play a role in learning and memory.

"Not only will ICP10PK protect neurons from dying, but the ones that are living can function better," says Perkins. "You get smarter people."

Since the destruction of brain cells is the hallmark of memory-wasting diseases such as Alzheimer's, it's possible the protein could lead to a gene therapy treatment for the disease.

"Everybody has known for years that [preventing cell death in the brain] would be a desirable thing, but they didn't have a gene," says Aurelian.

What makes the discovery more exciting is that Perkins might have solved one of the other major hurdles in gene therapy: figuring out how to get the gene only to the cells that need it.

Again, Perkins turned to herpes for help. In animal experiments with a nonvirulent form of the virus, she found that the virus readily deposited ICP10PK in nerve cells.

Perkins might be surprised she won the national award but her adviser isn't.

"She has courage ... and perseverance," says Aurelian.

Born in communist Romania, Perkins had to scrap her way to a master's degree in biochemistry from the University of Bucharest, which until she graduated in 1989 was the only school in the country to offer the program. Her mother, who worked as a nurse, urged her to become a doctor. Perkins had other plans. "Even from that time I was always interested in discovering some new drug, to find some cure for something," she says.

After working a few years in Romania, she moved to the United States in 1995 and landed a job in the Baltimore branch of Cel-Sci Corp., a Virginia-based biotech company that develops cancer and AIDS drugs. In 1998, she entered the University of Maryland pharmacology program full time.

And what will the budding scientist do with all that cash?

"Pay off my credit card debt. Give some to my mom," she says. She's also had no lack of suggestions from her boyfriend and younger brother in Montreal.

"They send me lists," she says. "And I say, `Why are you telling me this?' Everybody has these big plans."

For Perkins, who expects to become a U.S. citizen this fall and to finish her doctorate next year, it's about more than the money.

She has an uncle in Romania with Alzheimer's disease, and she knows firsthand what the disease can do.

"It's pretty painful," she says. "Finding a cure for Alzheimer's, that would be an awesome achievement for anybody in this field."

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