Subtle Changes, Deadly Diseases
The class of proteins known as ion channels are necessary for the cells in the kidneys, heart, and the nervous system to work. Sodium and potassium channels are two examples of channels that make neuronal signalling, and hence brain function, possible. Tiny genetic defects in these ion channels have been linked to various forms of epilepsy, chronic pain, cardiac-associated sudden death, and possibly Alzheimer's. We need to understand these proteins work, if we are going to come up with a cure or prevention of these diseases.
Studying sodium and potassium channels is not easy, unfortunately. They cannot function outside cell membranes, they are difficult to purify, and the relationship between their structure and function is not fully understood. However, Dr. Jay Nadeau, Canada Research Chair in Nanocellular Neuroscience, has found ways to overcome these obstacles. Because one way to understand ion channels is to study similar, but simpler, proteins in primitive organisms such as bacteria, Dr. Nadeau studies bacteria from desert environments. In addition, she has isolated a single molecule of an ion channel and placed it within a microfabricated silicon device, thus allowing the study of the single protein without the complications of a surrounding cell.
Eventually, scientists may be able to use implant "bioelectronic" devices under the skin to monitor human health or even to cure disease; they may eventually be able to use the devices to bridge gaps in neuronal function to aid patients with spinal cord injury or other nervous system conditions. Dr. Nadeau's research into sodium and potassium channels is bringing such bioelectronic devices one step closer to reality.