Looking for the ‘magic drug’ to fight Alzheimer’s and diabetes

Emre Guney
Emre Guney

Turkish-born Emre Güney (Izmir, 1983) joined IRB Barcelona in October 2015 as a Beatriu de Pinós Postodoctoral Fellow. Supporting the best young scientists, these highly competitive 2-year fellowships awarded by the Catalan Government allow them to choose the centre where they want to carry out their research project.

Originally trained as a computer scientist, Emre first came to Barcelona when he was looking for a place in Europe where he could study what truly fascinated him. After obtaining a PhD from the Pompeu Fabra University in 2012, Emre moved to the US to work at the Centers for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University and at the Center for Cancer Systems Biology at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

“My PhD was focussed on bioinformatics, and especially structural bioinformatics,” he explains.  He worked on the field of disease gene prioritization—that is the process of assigning the likelihood of gene involvement in generating a disease phenotype. “After my doctoral studies, when I was essentially predicting new genes involved in diseases, I began working on drug data,” says Emre. “We worked on figuring out why a drug works in a given disease from a system biology perspective. This allows us to come up with new uses for known drugs, allowing us to optimise their use.” According to Emre, “it’s all about networks, and the function of a gene is a consequence of proteins interacting with each other.” The same is true for the pharmacological approach: “once we know that there is a connection between genes involved in a disease, we can actually find points in the networks that we can attack to tackle the disease.”

Emre chose to carry out his research at IRB Barcelona because of the encouragement he found in Patrick Aloy’s Structural Bioinformatics and Network Biology lab. “The main reason why I’m back in Barcelona, despite the offers I received from other European labs, is because I discussed my project with Patrick, and he expressed his full support,” he explains.

As Emre puts it, “my idea is to find a ‘magic drug’ that can cure Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.” Even if it sounds exotic, it shouldn't really sound so surprising. Insulin signals cells to take up glucose, but it also governs the brain’s uptake of this polysaccharide. It’s also known that the brain itself makes a certain amount of insulin, and various parts of the organ are rich in receptors for this molecule.

“A few years ago, scientists discovered that, although Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes seemed completely unrelated diseases, amyloid plaque accumulation has similar signalling pathways as those used in insulin resistance. Some people got to the point of calling Alzheimer’s disease type-3 diabetes,” he says. “If you look at the patients, they are more often affected by these two diseases together compared to what one would expect by chance”.

It is indeed a risky and purely basic research project. “What is exciting about this idea,” notes Emre, “is that it is attractive to think that by attacking just one pathway with a drug you might solve two diseases at the same time. This would reduce the toxicological impact on patients.”

Coming back to Barcelona was certainly one of the options Emre considered to continue his career, convinced by the welcoming environment and enriching experiences he had during his PhD. “The key factor, though, was that my fellowship requires you to be in a scientifically relevant place for your research and one that can help you to become an independent researcher. And Patrick is one of the top three people in Spain working in this field. Also, a good thing about his lab is that it works with both computational and experimental aspects. This is a luxury if you are a computational person. You might come out with very nice predictions, but your research will have a greater impact if you can validate it experimentally.”