Nancy O'Mara has watched her mother-in-law's memory slowly deteriorate over the past few years, an experience that touched her and other members of her family deeply.
So when O'Mara saw a television news story about a Madison company doing research on a protein supplement that may improve memory, she called the number on the screen. Although she doesn't have memory problems herself, she wanted to do something to help others such as her mother-in-law.
Monday morning, O'Mara found herself seated before a computer at Quincy Bioscience on Madison's West Side memorizing shopping lists and performing other memory tasks for science. It was her third visit to Quincy as part of a study in which more than 150 people are being tested to measure the impact of a protein called aequorin on human memory.
The protein comes, strangely enough, from a jellyfish.
Like O'Mara, Mark Underwood, the 37-year-old president of Quincy Bioscience, comes from a family that has struggled with Alzheimer's. When he first read of a jellyfish protein that may help improve human memory, he saw both promise and a business opportunity.
By 2004, Underwood, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, had read a lot about jellyfish and the mysterious protein. He had also started Quincy Bioscience and, in 2010, received a patent that covers the use of aequorin-related compounds for preventing and alleviating symptoms and disorders related to calcium imbalance. Research has shown a connection between toxic levels of calcium in the brain and dementia and some, including Underwood, believe aequorin helps regulate calcium levels.
The science of aequorin is by no means certain. Jeffrey Johnson, a pharmaceutical researcher with the UW-Madison's Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences said there is no peer-reviewed research related to aequorin and human brain health. And he said there are many questions about how the protein works.Still, Underwood wasted no time in moving a protein supplment made from aequorin to market. It's called Prevagen and is available in thousands of health food stores across the country as a protein that offers "brain cell protection."But Underwood wants to connect the product more solidly to improvements in memory. Thus, the three-month trial and testing Prevagen on memory in people such as O'Mara. It's set up as a double-blind study, meaning that half of the participants are taking a placebo and half aren't; neither the participants nor Quincy know who is taking the placebos.Early results have been positive, Underwood said. Data on 35 participants was pulled for presentation at a recent Alzheimer's conference and showed a 14 percent improvement in working memory among those taking the protein supplement.Some scientists, including Johnson, remain skeptical.Johnson said no studies have shown how aequorin can be taken orally and delivered to the brain without first being degraded by the digestive system. Nor, Johnson added, have studies shown how the protein gets through cell walls or into the blood stream.Even Underwood admits that he hasn't seen such questions answered. But he said he welcomes more thorough research."It's an important question," Underwood said. "But your memory doesn't get better because this protein goes to your elbow ... Someone has to lead the charge. And if we're able to push the work forward, maybe we could pass this on to more qualified people who could take it across the goal line."