At 63, Winthrop University student Craig Stevens is far from retired - he's "retooling for his second career."
When the Abitibi Bowater retiree graduates, he hopes to teach high school or find a research gig.
And thanks to a grant designed to increase faculty and student biomedical research at universities, he's getting plenty of practice. Stevens helps two chemistry professors - James Hanna and Robin Lammi - explore the frontier of Alzheimer's research.
Hanna, Lammi and Stevens' research is made possible through an INBRE grant (IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) from the National Institutes of Health.
Winthrop received $1.5 million through the same program from 2005 to 2010.
Another $2.6 million of $16 million granted to S.C. universities will help a handful of Winthrop faculty and students embark on new biomedical research projects during the next five years.
Winthrop's recent focus on biomedical research has helped spark student interest in biomedical research, involving 96 undergraduates and eight graduate students in ongoing research projects, according to a Winthrop press release.
As a result, 27 undergraduates earned Ph.D. degrees in chemistry, biology or biomedical sciences, the release said.
The grant has "really bolstered competiveness for funding and research," said Takita Sumter, who oversees the grant projects. She expects that to continue during the next five years.
"The best way to educate undergraduates is to get them involved in hands-on activities," Sumter said.
In the lab
Stevens is working to create new chemical compounds designed to thwart the development of Alzheimer's disease.
He's the "contractor" working to create what Lammi and Hanna - the "architects" - have envisioned, he says.
When asked how the research is going, Stevens jokes, "I haven't blown anything up yet."
Stevens' work includes combining molecules in a 300-degree Fahrenheit microwave oven to create a new chemical compound, then applying it a mass of proteins thought to contribute to Alzheimer's.
"It's no different from baking a cake," Stevens said.
But still eluding scientists are the exact causes and best ways to treat the disease.
"One of the prevalent theories about how Alzheimer's occurs involves a protein in the brain in the cells that is naturally produced," Hanna said.
The protein normally looks like a squiggly line - not wholly different than what a crayon-bearing 5-year-old would produce, he said.
But that protein can undergo changes in the way it's folded, folding tautagainst itself like a bobby pin, he said.
Sometimes the long sides of the folded pins stick together, and "those aggregates start to become toxic and work in a manner to kill neuron cells," leading to Alzheimer's, he said.
Alzheimer's is diagnosed, Hanna said, by looking in the brain after death and seeing the fibrous masses made up by these stuck-together proteins.
Hanna, Lammi and Stevens are trying to prevent those little masses of proteins from forming in the first place by applying the chemical compounds to them.
"You say it isn't that simple, but it's not that hard either," Stevens said.
A critical need
Not much is known about what causes Alzheimer's or how to treat it, and not much money is going into research about the disease, Lammi said.
While the National Institutes of Health spends more than $6 billion a year on cancer research, more than $4 billion on heart research and more than $3 billion on HIV/AIDS research, the NIH spends only $480 million on Alzheimer's research, the Alzheimer's Association reports.
This is startling, Lammi said, especially since death rates for other major diseases are decreasing, while Alzheimer's remains one of the top-10 causes of death without a cure or preventative treatment.
People are also living longer, and Alzheimer's is a disease that strikes in old age, Lammi said. But with help of the NIH, universities, including Winthrop, have an opportunity to develop science's understanding of the disease and how to treat it.
Stevens is eager to contribute to that understanding.
And besides, being back in school beats retirement, he said.
"I enjoy it. And it's better than Jerry Springer."