Chandler man’s fruit fly study may unlock medical mysteries - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler man’s fruit fly study may unlock medical mysteries

August 6th, 2018 SanTan Sun News
Chandler man’s fruit fly study may unlock medical mysteries

SanTan Sun News Staff


A Chandler man’s study of fruit flies may help lead to a deeper understanding of how stress contributes to aging in the human body.

Randall Eck is undertaking the research at the University of Arizona, where he is a junior majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science.

He also is part of the Beckman Scholars Program, a highly selective nationwide effort of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation that seeks high-caliber undergraduate research programs demonstrating “a significant commitment” to chemistry, biology or a combination of the two disciplines

UofA is one of 12 universities across the U.S. selected for the Beckman Scholars Program and only 21 students were chosen this year. They will perform research for 15 months with a distinguished mentor in their field of interest and will receive over $20,000 to be used as a stipend, for research materials and travel to scientific conferences.

The 20-year-old son of Randall and Dina Eck of Chandler, he graduated in 2016 from Arizona College Prep-Erie.

As part of the program, Eck will present his research next summer at the annual Beckman Conference in Irvine, California.

Eck believes his experiences in his laboratory have provided him a head start in his ambition to one day open his own lab at a university studying neurodegenerative diseases.

“I spent last summer researching parasites in the Czech Republic with the Prozkoumat program and had an amazing time working in a lab abroad. Having had such an amazing experience, I would like to become a Fulbright scholar, which would sponsor a year of research in a laboratory in a foreign country,” he said, adding:

“The problems facing humanity know no borders. Building strong international collaborations in science allows research to tap into the talent of everyone working around the globe. I would like to pursue a Ph.D. in neurobiology…. There is no better place than academia to pursue my passion for neuroscience while also training the next generation of scientists as a professor.”

He became interested in neuroscience while volunteering during summers iat a home for disabled children.

“I was a friend to children with autism, severe brain damage and more,” he said. “While I helped them learn how to complete a puzzle or play a musical instrument, I often thought about other ways I could help them. I loved school and excelled in my science classes, so for me, my best bet was to peruse an education.

“The human brain always seemed like a complete enigma, but the more I learned the more I become excited and inquisitive about the unanswered questions about how our minds work and how our biology plays a role in a wide array of diseases,” he added.

After becoming a national Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholar, Eck began to use fruit flies to study normal aging and where it goes wrong in neurodegeneration.

He explained that when your cells become stressed, they do not have the luxury of removing themselves from a situation. “They have nowhere to go,” he said/

“Our cells have developed a number of creative ways to deal with and protect themselves from stress. When a cell is too warm, being smushed by nearby fluids, or being exposed to a highly reactive chemical, it slows down its most critical function: producing proteins, which are the machines of the cell.

“By stopping translation, or the making of proteins, the cell can use the energy it would have been using to resolve the stress. One way the cell puts the breaks on translation is by forming tiny complexes called stress granules. These granules sequester proteins involved in translation and mRNAs, which are the blueprint for new proteins. In these granules, these blueprints and cellular machines are protected from damage by the stress.”

Researchers in the lab of Dr. Daniela Zarnescu are studying how these granules change during the aging process and in age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS.

“We have developed a model where we can observe stress granules forming in fruit flies as they age and also observe how the proteins related to this process change,” Eck said.

The study of aging has many unanswered questions.

“What is aging? It is a difficult question to answer, but what can be said is that aging is a process — a slow breakdown of the precisely calibrated processes going on in every cell in your body,” Eck said.

According to Eck, stress granules have been largely overlooked in the study of aging but are known to play a critical role in Lou Gehrig’s disease, where muscles progressively weaken because motor neurons begin to die due to toxic protein clumping together.

“We know stress granules are critical to how neurodegeneration, or accelerated aging, begins. Our project hopes to shine a light on how our cell’s ability to form these granules changes over time and how this contributes to the normal aging process,” Eck said.

“The best way to learn about science, in my opinion, is not in a classroom, but rather in a research lab, doing hands-on research that could potentially impact someone’s life,” Eck said.

As part of the Beckman program, Eck also mentors other undergraduate students working in research laboratories during the summer through UA’s Undergraduate Biology Research Program.

At the end of his project, Eck hopes to have gained insight into how the mechanisms stress resiliency change as we get older and how these contribute to how we age and the neurological diseases affecting people.

“All the days in the lab are worth it – not for the money or the recognition – but because one day my research might be able to learn something new about our nature and help improve our quality of life,” he said.