flying foxes in the study to cure Alzheimer's, at Moxie Beauty Care

Dr. Cox is set to find a cure for Alzheimer's Part II

Moxie Beauty Care Admin

Doctor Paul Cox, creator of our epoch® beauty line, has set his goals pretty high. His research is very interesting and thought of sharing it with you. This article was published in the FORTUNE Magazine, enjoy the read of part II of a series!

Cox approached the mystery through the lens of ethno­botany—examining the Chamorro not in the clinic, but in their culture. “And we discover that the flying fox is the most important item in their whole diet,” he said. “They identify themselves as the hunters of flying foxes. One village elder told me, ‘You don’t get this. I would not sell one of those for any price. If I had one, I would lock the door, bolt the windows, cook it, and eat it, and people would be trying to break in to get some.’ ”

Cox believed that this culinary predilection might explain lytico-bodig. One clue was that only older generations of the Chamorro got ill. They had hunted the native bats into extinction. Young Chamorro, who hadn’t grown up feasting on those flying foxes, weren’t getting sick. A second clue was that the Guam bats lived on cycad seeds. If, as Cox believed, BMAA (or another noxious substance) accumulated and magnified over time in bat fat, then every bowl of flying fox stew was toxic. In 2002, he and Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist and author of such books as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, published a paper in the journal Neurology that laid out his theory.

Cicad tree with toxic seeds - Nu Skin by Moxie

Over the next two years, Cox set out to confirm his thesis with Sandra Banack, another bat-loving biologist, and Canadian chemist Susan Murch. In Neurology, they reported finding massive levels of BMAA in museum specimens of the bat. They subsequently discovered BMAA in the brain tissue of Chamorro who had died of lytico-bodig—and also, notably, in the brains of Canadian Alzheimer’s victims. (The toxin, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found in the brains of Chamorro and Canadians who had died of other causes.) The team even made a discovery that seemed to link lytico-bodig to brain diseases around the world. Cycad trees get their sustenance via strange, coral-like, aerial roots. Cox found cyanobacteria, the oldest organism on earth, in those roots.

Cyanobacteria, which are often referred to as blue-green algae, are all around us, in oceans and lakes, in puddles and ponds, even under the crust of deserts from Kuwait to Arizona. And cyanobacteria are loaded with toxins, including BMAA. The Chamorro were just getting ultrahigh doses of a toxin that the rest of us are exposed to all the time. If Cox was right, every green stinky body of water around the world might harbor an insidious source of neurological disease. “It was like staring into the abyss,” he said.

While Cox undertook this initial research, he also had a day job: director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a group of five preserves in Hawaii and Florida set aside by congressional mandate for research and conservation. Cox kept his employers abreast of his investigations, and eventually, Doug Kinney, a retired investment banker who chaired the garden’s board, decided that he should move on. “Paul was okay as a garden director,” Kinney told me. “But spending time thinking about who would take care of a particular plot of nasturtiums is not what a great scientific mind ought to be doing.”

Kinney and a couple of friends, including Bill Egan, the former EVP of Johnson & Johnson’s worldwide consumer products division, told Cox they’d fund a lab where he could research his theory linking the BMAA toxin and neurological disease. They wouldn’t hobble the lab with the red tape typically faced by researchers at pharmaceutical companies and academic labs. Cox and his researchers would decide what experiments to conduct, they’d get new equipment when they asked for it, and neither the board nor Cox would expect any commercial return. The scientist, in turn, promised he’d be efficient; the lab, which was launched in 2006, has an annual budget of around $2.5 million.

Kinney, Egan, and the other initial funders weren’t the only people fascinated by Cox’s tale of the Guam puzzle. Cox is a good storyteller—at Harvard, he twice won the prestigious Bowdoin Prize for essay writing (other winners include Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Updike). And he has attracted a fair amount of publicity, including from Time magazine, which once named him one of 11 “Heroes of Medicine.” Early on, criticism accompanied the attention, often from scientists accusing him of dubious methods and bad science. “Every time [he] comes up with another award or a big glossy story about him, we all just cringe,” one told The New Yorker in 2005. I tried to contact several of his critics for this story, but none returned my emails or phone calls.

Cox, who earned a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard and undergraduate degrees in botany and philosophy from Brigham Young University, acknowledges such skepticism—and seems even to welcome it. Doubt and derision are helpful reminders for scientists—reminders not to be trapped by your own ideas and certainty: “It’s really important, as a scholar and a scientist, to have a contour map of your knowledge,” he told me. “And it’s just as important to have a contour map of your ignorance.”

As he pursued his scientific inquiry on BMAA, he began cobbling together a group of scientists that could fill in the many gaps in his own training. He started with neurologists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Since then, he told me, “I’ve gone to over 50 people in 28 labs in a dozen countries with the same pitch: ‘Hi, please stop what you’re doing. Help us solve Alzheimer’s and ALS.’”

By all accounts, he’s persuasive. “In 2008, he came to meet us in Sydney,” said Rachael Dunlop, a molecular biologist in Australia. Cox was trying to understand just how the toxin BMAA did its damage in the brain. He believed that it insinuated itself into protein chains in place of one of the 20 standard amino acids, causing misfolding that can trigger the death of neurons. He didn’t know which of the 20 was being displaced, although he suspected glutamate, an important neurotransmitter. Dunlop and her then boss, Ken Rodgers, were expert on this kind of misincorporation, so Cox asked them if they’d investigate. “It’s so gripping when he tells you the story about Guam and Oliver Sacks and the Chamorros and cyanobacteria—how could you not want to work on the project, right?” says Dunlop. “It’s the ultimate scientific detective story. That’s what did it for us.” The research she and Rodgers conducted for Cox proved critical—and also proved him wrong. BMAA was passing for L-serine, not glutamate. Rodgers and Dunlop had handed Cox a potential treatment to combat his toxin. Dunlop eventually went to work for Cox in Jackson, while Rodgers now directs a lab at Sydney’s University of Technology.

Cox is the consortium’s ringleader, emcee, flack, and switchboard operator. He says he’s on email or phone calls with a handful or two of the scientists every week, learning about new research, suggesting new avenues to pursue, and connecting them to others in the group. The consortium gathers once a year, often in Jackson but sometimes in places like Johannesburg or Stockholm. “We’re all in different fields,” marine biologist Larry Brand told me. “We all present our results and try to connect the dots on everything from causes of algae blooms to medical problems to possible prevention and treatment.” Brand’s work has evolved as a result of these collaborations. A decade ago, when he first joined the consortium, Brand was trying to understand what causes the huge algae blooms that Florida sees so often. Now he’s trying to figure out how much BMAA is getting into the food chain via crabs, shrimp, and other marine life that can be found in those blooms. “Paul’s something of a Renaissance man,” Brand told me. “He’s very knowledgeable in a lot of different fields, and he’s very good at connecting the dots.”

Neurologist Aleksandra Stark, who runs the Alzheimer’s clinic at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H., attended her first conference last October. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “All these brilliant people get together and talk about their research around BMAA and cyanobacteria. There was stuff on zebra fish, on cyanobacteria carried by different species of butterflies, on all the various toxins found in blue-green algae. It spanned all domains of science. It was kind of ridiculous—in a good way.”

Cox’s own work has now been cited by other researchers more than 12,000 times in scientific journals. 

Article Credits: Fortune Magazine, by Rick Tetzeli