Sweet discovery that maple syrup may prevent Alzheimer’s sparks worldwide interest in U of T expert
Donald Weaver is renowned for research into mis-folding proteins and drug design
Donald Weaver announced surprising results recently at the American Chemical Society in San Diego: maple syrup extract may prevent proteins in brain cells from folding the wrong way – as they do in Alzheimer’s disease.
“One of the theories of Alzheimer's disease is there are proteins – beta amyloid and tau peptide, in neurons – which clump up and cause harm to the brain,” Weaver, a U of T professor of medicine and adjunct professor of chemistry told CBC News.
“We found that a particular extract from maple syrup prevented this clumping.”
Research is in its early stages: tests have been conducted only in a test tube. It remains to be seen if compounds have the same impact on the brain when they are ingested. But the story has been making headlines in Canada and around the world.
A neurologist, researcher and multiple-patent holder, Weaver is also director of the Krembil Research Institute. He has been dubbed the “origami master” of drug design – a nod to his work in preventing the mis-folding of proteins that leads to clumping. His lab is now developing compounds for his latest biotech company, Treventis Inc., to address this phenomenon.
Writer Kim Luke of the Faculty of Arts & Science talked to Weaver about the explosion of media interest in his discovery.
Your work has been covered by the media in Canada but also in the U.K. and Asia. Did you expect the story to generate so much interest?
Yes, there has been widespread interest and I was definitely surprised by the response. I have received emails from people in India, since the story was covered in the Times of India. To date, it has been covered by more than 60 newspapers worldwide.
However, in retrospect, I suppose there are good reasons for this interest. Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease for which no curative or disease-stabilizing therapies are available. To think that a lead could come from something like maple syrup has a delightful “quirkiness” that garners wide interest and appeal. Also, there is always interest in Canada, and it doesn’t get much more Canadian than maple syrup.
What did you think of the coverage?
Coverage has been excellent. None of the stories has “oversold” the results. All have emphasized that these are preliminary data and that we are not saying that maple syrup is a cure for dementia. They appreciate that these are early times and much work remains to be done. Also, much of the coverage has been rather humorous: “Don’t be a sap, consider maple syrup”; “Maple trees are an untapped resource.”
Is it important for scientists to share their work with the broader public?
Yes. A great deal of research is funded by organizations like the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) or the Canadian Institutes for Health Research CIHR. This is government-distributed funding that originated from Canadian taxpayers. We owe a measure of accountability.
Also, since science plays such an important part in our everyday lives, it is imperative that the general public be aware of scientific research issues. Finally, it is important to engage the public in scientific issues. A knowledgeable public makes for a better country.
Some researchers are wary of sharing results in case they are overstated or misinterpreted. What can scientists do to help the media report their work accurately?
This is definitely a concern. I have previously had media coverage that didn’t go exactly as I would have wanted, with results being somewhat overstated. Although this has not happened to date with this maple syrup story, it is always a concern.
Timelines sometimes make it challenging for the reporter to fact-check the story with the scientist. Reporters are often reluctant to allow subjects to proofread their story. Whenever possible we should offer to fact-check for scientific accuracy and let the reporter know we are available if they require further clarification. When mistakes are made, it diminishes the impact of the story and the scientific message being delivered, and this is not desirable for anyone.