On the Hunt

11 Sep 2017

Cox Searches for Innovative Therapies for ALS, Alzheimer’s

Summer 2017

Written By: John R. Moses | Images: Lance Koudele


Medical researcher Paul Cox has enough degrees and accolades to collapse the walls of a very sturdy office. It's probably a good thing his is a stout yet unassuming cabin on Jackson's East side.

He’s been honored by President Ronald Reagan and the king of Sweden, celebrated by Time magazine as one of 11 “Heroes of Medicine,” and was once a dean at Brigham Young University. Cox is director of the Brain Chemistry Labs, where research on neurodegenerative diseases helps create groundbreaking discoveries in the shadows of the Tetons. The focus is on finding new therapies to treat ALS—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—and Alzheimer’s disease. A recent Wednesday morning found Cox meeting with several colleagues in the institute’s common room, a cross between a rustic B&B’s reception area and a very comfy den. “People forget that science is a social process,” Cox says, after a group discussion. LOCAL BOY, GLOBAL IMPACT Born and raised in this part of the West, Cox’s life was shaped by outdoor recreation, a strong Mormon upbringing, and both his parents’ chosen careers: park ranger and scientist. Thus began Cox’s lifelong love of skiing, hiking, and climbing—and he’s still going strong at 63. “I love to ski powder,” Cox says. He also keeps a fly rod handy during fishing season. Cox earned a PhD in biology from Harvard University, after studying botany and philosophy at Brigham Young University. At Harvard he won the Bowdoin Prize in Literature—twice. As a Fulbright Fellow, he earned a master's degree in ecology from the University of Wales. He was also a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1980s. His time as a dean at Brigham Young University was a way to “give back” to that institution, he says. A CLUE ON OKINAWA As Cox and his team look at neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS, instead of just examining the damage they look for hidden switches that might trigger brain damage as many as 20 years before it manifests. Cox says picking through a tissue sample and analyzing brain tangles and other protein buildups “is like trying to catch an arsonist by looking at the charred wreckage of the building.” Early prevention requires understanding and disabling triggers. “Brain tangles and plaques are symptoms rather than causes of Alzheimer’s disease,” Cox says. Key clues, he believes, were found in a remote Okinawan village among a group of people whose diet is heavy in the amino acid L-Serine. Among the people of Ogimi village, there is no record of ALS, despite part of their diet containing a neurotoxin believed to be causing sickness in a study group on Guam. Women in the Okinawan village have a longer lifespan than contemporaries on mainland Japan, appear generally younger, and are more flexible cognitively as well as physically, even into their 90s. "Brain tangles and plaques are symptoms rather than causes of Alzheimer’s disease." Paul Cox “They have absolute recall. They move like ballerinas,” Cox says while showing videos of several villagers exercising and speaking. The neurotoxin sickening people on Guam occurs in cycad flour that people of Ogimi consumed during World War II, but it apparently did not cause ill effects among the inhabitants of the remote village in Okinawa. The same toxin has also been found in tissue samples from Alzheimer’s and ALS patients in North America. Ongoing studies examine whether administering L-Serine to early-stage ALS patients is an effective treatment. A second round of clinical trials on humans was approved by the FDA in March. Interest is growing in the lab’s research and Cox and his team appeared as subjects of the documentary "Hunt for the Hidden Killer," which premiered this spring.
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