California State University, Long Beach
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Study May Hold Key To Autism, Greener Environment

Published: April 1, 2015

When Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Roger Acey received a $125,000 private gift recently to support his research program at CSULB, it validated a study that may hold keys to neurodegenerative diseases and a greener environment.

Acey, a member of the university since 1983, praised the support as the largest private cash gift the department has ever received as well as the largest private gift for research.

“Obviously, I’m thrilled,” he said. “It says a lot about the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM) as well as the department that a lab like ours would be possible. I’ve been at CSULB for more than 30 years and I’ve watched the college evolve. In the beginning, I was given $2,000 in start-up funding and felt lucky to get that amount. Since then, there has been a dramatic evolution of support.” The recent private gift was preceded by a gift for $30,000. Current funding provides for two full-time research technicians (both are CSULB graduates) and funding for numerous student researchers.

Acey’s lab initially studied the biochemistry and genetics of embryonic development using the brine shrimp, Artemia salina, commonly known as “Sea Monkeys”. He is particularly interested in how environmental contaminants affect development. He focused on a class of compounds known as phthalate esters. These compounds are found in plastic water bottles. Using the brine shrimp, Acey found that di butyl phthalate (DBP) is toxic to the developing embryos. His group believes the toxicity is due to the phthalate interacting with an enzyme known as butyrylchoninesterase (BuChE), the enzyme involved in the development of the nervous system.

He and his students have since turned to using umbilical cord stem cells to study the role of butyrylcholinesterase in developing neurons and the effect of DBP.

“After the stem cells are activated and begin to develop into a neuron, the DBP becomes toxic,” he said. “We think what is happening is that the DBP prevents the butyrylcholinesterase from performing its normal biological function.”

Acey is interested in how phthalates might be connected to the dramatic rise in autism and Alzheimer’s disease. A recent study has shown that rat fetuses exposed to DBP develop symptoms characteristic of autism. Acey found his own research life-changing. “From a biochemist’s point of view, it was interesting, but from a human being’s point of view, I got real scared,” he recalled. “Since I began my research, I have taken all the plastic out of my house.”

Acey’s research has been funded by grants from CSULB, the March of Dimes, the National Institutes of Health, and the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology.

Students play a big role in Acey’s lab. “I try to surround myself with the best and brightest but this is the best group of students I’ve worked with in years,” he said, noting his students’ co-author presented research and are currently writing three papers.

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PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Roger Acey (back row center) with individuals from his lab group.

Student interest in his research has evolved over the years. “Neurodegenerative diseases and neuron development are major student interests now but when I was working with brine shrimp, it wasn’t perceived as the most attractive topic by students,” he said. “But that is not with the case individual developing neurons.”

Another student interest is “green chemistry.”

“We have a second research project that looks at ways of removing toxic metals from the environment,” he said. “In the next six months, we hope to have a prototype toxic metal sponge ready for commercialization that can be used to remove toxic metals from water. Interestingly, the sponge will be capable of collection precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum.”

CNSM senior director of development Maryanne Horton stressed the importance of private gifts.

“They move forward the research and provide opportunities for students,” she said. “In this college, we believe teaching and research are inextricably linked. We’re infusing research into courses as well as providing opportunities for students to work in faculty research labs. We are finding that having the experience of co-authoring papers and presenting at major conferences erases any edge a student from a research institution may have when applying to graduate schools. CSULB students prove they can do it.”

Such support will make a big difference to the future of Acey’s lab. “Private funding for research is more and more important as the competition for declining Federal grant dollars becomes more fierce,” said Horton. “The national success rate for R&D grants hovers at around 20 percent. This college has a success rate of 30 to 35 percent in 2013 and 2014. That is amazing from a university considered to be only a teaching institution.”

Acey points to the quality of his students’ research experience as proof of his lab’s value.

“We attract graduate students from the UC and many arrive with little, if any, research experience. Our students stand out from them dramatically,” Acey said. “The UC schools simply do not provide the opportunities that are available here at CSULB. The CSU’s advantage is giving our students the opportunity to become even more competitive.”

Horton believes private support for public higher education is an extremely good investment. “Contributions to CSULB have an impact that is greater than at a private university,” she said. “Our faculty have become adept at using minimal resources to achieve great things. They do it all with an eye toward their students. Their job is to prepare our students so they can set out on their career paths with what they need to be successful. When they go off to do great things, we all benefit.”