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Revelling in the rewards of collaboration

By Matthew Pariselli  •  December 4, 2017

When confronted with an obstacle, one can choose to concede or to persist and pursue alternative routes to success. The latter is the course of action Dr. Slavica Krantic, a visiting scientist from Centre de Recherche des Cordeliers in Paris, applies to her work in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research.

Krantic—who is working alongside Dr. JoAnne McLaurin, senior scientist in Biological Sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI)—has struggled to prove the value of collaboration in France. Whether a proposed project is perceived as too risky or radical, the powers that be are often reluctant to foster teamwork and drum up funding. Krantic therefore decided to look beyond the confines of her home country and search for international partnerships. More than 10 years ago, after a colleague recommended she reach out to McLaurin, who is also a professor in the department of medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto, she found what she was chasing and the scientists began collaborating. “JoAnne is always on the first line with the newest models and approaches. On top of that, she’s very positive and open. Together, we just go for it,” Krantic says. It is a relationship built on mutual respect, and one that could transform the way AD is diagnosed.

In Paris, Krantic studies the retina in the hope of uncovering an early method of detecting AD. “I use the retina as the ‘window’ to the brain in order to study the mechanisms of AD during the pre-symptomatic stage,” she says. Alzheimer’s disease begins its assault on the human brain years before it can be diagnosed—up to 20 years, Krantic posits. By the time it manifests, irreversible damage has been done and neurodegeneration runs rampant. To combat this, scientists like Krantic realized they needed to identify the disease sooner. Their answer: the retina.

It has been shown that a build-up of toxic proteins called amyloid beta begins to form in the retina before it does in deeper regions of the brain, which was long thought to be the point of origin. Amyloid beta is responsible for plaques, known to have an association with AD. This discovery fuelled the drive to study the retina. A supporting reason is that the retina is more accessible for noninvasive monitoring than the rest of the brain.

McLaurin—who is at the forefront of her field, according to Krantic—was among the first to recognize the potential of the new transgenic rat model for studying AD. Rather than using mouse models, she decided to switch to a rat model—the brains of the new transgenic rats reflect the human AD pathology more accurately. Aware of Krantic’s work on the retina, McLaurin invited her to SRI this fall for a two-month stint to take advantage of the new model. McLaurin says, “Dr. Krantic and I are developing a new area of research for my lab; thus, her presence in the lab to demonstrate proof of concept and to help troubleshoot techniques relating to the retina in our rat model of AD will expedite the work in a way that teleconferences and FaceTime cannot.” McLaurin adds that it’s rewarding to partner with a scientist as “dedicated and selfless” as Krantic.

The goal of the work, which also involves Dr. Bojana Stefanovic, senior scientist in Physical Sciences at SRI, is to ascertain whether an accumulation of amyloid beta can be spotted in micro vessels in the retina the way it can in other areas of the brain. Krantic says, “If we can demonstrate that the retina can be used as a diagnostic readout, it will totally open a new era of diagnoses for AD. Retinal examinations are noninvasive; you can repeat them as frequently as you want. They’re less expensive [than brain examinations], they would only take two minutes, and they could be done during routine tests for vision. This is something that could be really amazing.”

Earlier diagnoses could mean better outcomes, Krantic says. “We can get people at risk to be doing physical and cognitive exercises earlier; we can help improve their lives. Moreover, by applying sooner the existing treatments due to earlier diagnoses, we may slow down the progression of the disease. There is no cure for AD, but from what I understand and from how I see this disease, this is the best we can do right now.”

When asked about her impression of SRI, Krantic can barely contain her enthusiasm. The collaborative attitude toward research and the organized structure have inspired her. “I dream about a place where you have fundamental research, clinical research and all the different approaches that come along with those. That’s SRI. It’s the best place to try to put [this work] together.”

She has a pilot study underway in Lausanne, Switzerland because she couldn’t get support for it in France. The study assesses the retinas of subjects and analyzes their tears, looking for signatures of toxic peptides. Krantic hopes to broaden the work one day by enlisting the help of various colleagues, including Dr. Sandra Black, senior scientist in Evaluative Clinical Sciences and director of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at SRI.

As she prepares to make the nearly 6,000-kilometre trip home to Paris, Krantic reflects on her experience in Toronto with gratitude and glee. She is no stranger to Canada, having worked in Dr. Rémi Quirion’s Montreal lab at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute for three years, but Toronto has won her over these last two months. The city’s multiculturalism, rich character, vibrant arts scene, engaging museums and its proximity to the lake, which itself offers plenty of perks, have impressed her. “It’s an incredible quality of life you have here,” she says jovially. Asked to share a favourite memory from her stay, she cheerfully rehashes the thrill of Halloween, with the creative costumes donned by the McLaurin lab—members dressed as the Addams Family—as an irrefutable highlight.

It’s the collaboration at SRI, however, that she holds most dear—the ties with McLaurin she has strengthened, and the new connections made that she hopes to enhance in the future. With an infectious smile, she says, “In order for research to advance, you must collaborate. You must understand that we’re stronger together; that if you combine forces, you can come up with something faster. I dream of doing this in my home country, and I’m happy to have done it here.”

In a nutshell

  • A visiting scientist from Paris is working with SRI researchers to examine how the retina may hold the key to earlier diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Using a preclinical model, they are checking retinas for an accumulation of toxic proteins in micro vessels.
  • If Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed earlier, then its progression can be stalled.