When UK researcher Matthew Gentry began his career studying the biology of plants, he didn’t realize he’d someday be pursuing a cure for a human disease.
“You have to be willing to go where the science takes you,” says Gentry, a professor in the UK College of Medicine.
In Gentry’s case, the journey began when he found that a certain plant protein behaved similarly to the human protein that plays a role in Lafora disease – a rare congenital neurodegenerative condition that causes severe epilepsy, loss of speech and muscle control, and dementia, eventually leading to death.
This discovery provided information that medical researchers around the world are using today to test potential therapies for this deadly disease.
The research was also a step toward the development of methods to modify starch, with applications in the manufacturing of products such as plastics, animal feed, glue and clothing.
On a molecular level, the overlap between plant and human biology is tremendous, Gentry explains.
“Not long ago, the prevailing thought was that you could either work to cure a disease or you could work to figure out how something [a plant, a cell] functions,” Gentry says. “We are now at the point where the two intersect.”
Gentry spends much of his time advocating for more science funding through his work with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The current funding landscape is such that scientists must spend more and more of their time writing grants, which takes them away from doing meaningful research, he explains.
He also hopes that more of this funding will support the types of basic research that shed light on cellular function and dysfunction.
“This type of research can have implications for many diseases, not just one,” he says. “We need to be careful not to silo all the research dollars for specific diseases because that sometimes doesn’t allow the best science to get done.”
Watch the video below to learn more about Dr. Gentry’s innovative research.