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WVU students take research road trip to West Virginia Capitol

West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia University undergraduate researchers are demonstrating the importance of research led by the state’s flagship, land-grant institution for lawmakers firsthand.

During Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol Thursday (Feb. 22), WVU student researchers joined their peers from eight other institutions across the state to present research findings in the areas of creative arts, education, health sciences, the humanities, STEM, and social and behavioral sciences.

“Engaging in research is great, but communicating your findings is probably the most important part of research,” Laasya Chennuru, a junior biology and psychology major and Honors College student, said. “It’s also important to communicate our findings with our state legislators, the people who are making decisions about funding research opportunities at higher education institutions.”

The Kearneysville native was one nearly 50 participating WVU students. She discussed her Alzheimer’s research.

“Having programs that are funded helps students want to stay in our state and continue making strides toward improving the health of West Virginians, especially for students like me who are conducting research that is applicable to health care,” she said.

While exploring colleges, Chennuru applied to 16 different schools along the East Coast, but ultimately chose WVU because of the opportunities to get involved with research as early as her first semester on campus.

Through the Research Apprenticeship Program, she connected with her mentor Werner Geldenhuys, professor in the School of Pharmacy and School of Medicine, and has spent the last three years conducting research in his lab.

Her latest project focuses on mitoNEET, a protein that inhabits the outer membrane of mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses that fuel our body’s cells, and its potential to act as a drug therapeutic for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The way she describes how issues within the mitochondria can lead to neurodegenerative diseases is like a series of dominos falling.

“Mitochondria generate molecules called reactive oxygen species which, in excess, can cause oxidative stress,” Chennuru explained. “When our bodies experience oxidative stress, the defensive mechanisms of the mitochondria are hindered and cause neurons to die. And neuron death is a primary characteristic of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.”

Neurons can’t regenerate themselves, making it important for scientists to find ways to reduce neuron death.

In mouse models, Chennuru explored the use of TZD-class drug compounds, like those typically used to treat Type 2 diabetes, as a binding agent to mitoNEET to protect against neuronal death.

“What we found was reduced memory loss and increased outgrowth of neurites, suggesting mitoNEET can be used as a therapeutic target to lower or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “Ultimately, we have a ton of research still to do; however, it’s one step closer to finding a potential long-term solution to Alzheimer’s.”

In a state with one of the oldest populations in the country, Chennuru said she believes any step forward is important for West Virginians.

“West Virginians are particularly vulnerable to developing a lot of these age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s,” she said. “It’s really vital that West Virginia, particularly, invests in research efforts to decrease the progression of this disease and support healthy aging in patients across the state.”

Editor’s note: The use of animals in this project was evaluated by the WVU Institutional Animal Care and Use Ethics Committee. WVU is voluntarily accredited by AAALAC, a national peer organization that establishes a global benchmark for animal well-being in science.

See the list of WVU undergraduate researchers who participated in Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.

Read more about one of Chennuru’s fellow student presenters.

Photo caption: Laasya Chennuru, a junior WVU biology and psychology major and Honors College student from Kearneysville, was one of the University researchers who presented study findings during Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol Thursday (Feb. 22). (WVU Photo/Lindsay Willey)

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