FACULTY PROFILE: Unlocking the keys to Alzheimer's disease


By Kate Kurys
Thursday, June 4, 2009
When Marco Prado and his wife moved from Brazil to London in October, they brought along their two sons, seven students and a colony of mice.
Not house mice, but special genetically modified mice that both Prado and his wife, Vania, use in their research.

Marco and Vania were running separate molecular research laboratories at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte, when they were presented the opportunity to combine their labs at the Robarts Research Institute at The University of Western Ontario.
“We had our labs there for 15 years,” says Prado. “We had two independent labs that worked closely together.  When Western hired us we decided maybe we should join the labs.”    
Prado was hired as a tenured professor in the Department of Physiology & Pharmacology and the Department of Anatomy &Cell Biology.

The transition to Western has been more than just moving houses; Prado has had to move almost all aspects of his former lab to London.

“Making this move is not easy because it’s not like we are starting a new lab.  We have had programs for many, many years and we had people and students,” Prado says.

Four PhD students and three postdoctoral fellows followed Prado and his wife to Western to continue their research.

Prado’s current research is focused on two major projects. The first project studies molecular mechanisms, specifically how neurons interact with each other using the chemical messenger acetylcholine.

Prado examines how neurons form acetylcholine and how they use it to pass information to another neuron. One of the ways he does this is by studying the genetically modified mice that Vania studies in her section of the lab, he says.

Prado's research with acetylcholine may help scientists understand how the chemical affects communication in the brain, particularly in patients with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

“Our research has impacted Alzheimer’s disease because the chemical messenger that we study is one of the major chemical messengers that is found to be decreased in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Prado.

His second project focuses on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) – diseases that are transmitted by proteins. Prado studies the prion protein, which is believed to be the causal agent of TSE that affects humans and other species, he said. The most commonly known prion disease is Mad Cow disease.

“These are devastating diseases.  When people receive the diagnostic, they live for six months to a year,” he says. “They get demented and they die. And it all happens because of a specific protein, and we study that protein.”

These diseases change the form of the prion protein, which either affects neuron communication or makes the protein become toxic to neurons.

Prado’s interest in biochemistry and neurology was sparked during his undergraduate studies in pharmacy at the Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro.
He received his master of science and PhD in biochemistry from the Federal University of Minas Gerais.    

It was when Prado was doing his PhD, in 1991, that he and Vania got their first taste of Canada when he spent three years at McGill University in Montreal doing research.
Their exposure to the harsh Montreal winters has made the transition to snowy London much easier.

Marco and Vania’s two sons Thiago, 16, and Bruno, 13, are also adjusting well to the move. Despite being very busy setting up the lab and conducting research, Prado and Vania always make time for their boys.

“We value family very much, so on the weekends we make sure that we have time to sit down and talk with the kids and play with them,” says Vania.

Like their dad, the boys enjoy playing basketball in their spare time. However, whether the boys will follow in his and Vania’s footsteps and study biochemistry is still unknown. “We leave it totally to them,” she says.
In the meantime, Marco and Vania hope that the work they are doing here at Western may lead to a scientific breakthrough in the diseases they study.

“Hopefully, we can really get to the problems…in terms of the neurological disorders and can come up with other prevention or treatments or better approaches to manage those diseases,” says Prado.


• Played Basketball in High School
• Likes to play Nintendo Wii with his two sons
• Likes to go for bike rides
• In 2003 took a sabbatical to Duke University
• Is a scientist with the Molecular Brain Research Group at the Robarts Research Institute.

The writer is a graduate student studying Journalism. This feature profiles faculty members hired over the past two years.

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