Center for Integrative Biology | U Mayor

Felipe Court: "The lower the level of education, the greater the probability of having Alzheimer's"




He is a neurobiologist and is dedicated to studying the aging process in order to preventively detect and treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dementia. In addition to the results he monitors in his laboratory, he dedicates part of his free time to the violin and microscopic photography.

On a hillside in Huechuraba, overlooking the business city, is one of the Universidad Mayor's campus. There, installed in an office next to his laboratory, is Felipe Court (44) full professor and director of the Center for Integrative Biology (CIB) of this university. Before arriving here, his academic career has been as follows: he studied biology and art at the Catholic University, then studied a PhD at the University of Eduburg, UK, and continued with a postdoctoral fellowship in Milan. He returned to Chile and worked for nine years as a professor and researcher at the Catholic University. Four years ago he arrived at the Universidad Mayor to create the CIB and set up his Courtlab laboratory there, even moving his own equipment. He says that they function as a model of open laboratories, in a collaborative logic that even allows leasing space and equipment to companies through technological contracts or receiving researchers from other universities.

The doctor and professor have many news to tell about different ongoing investigations. Several have to do with the FERO, Fondap project of the Center for Gerocience, Mental Health and Metabolism that is dedicated to the study of aging and its relationship with pathologies that affect the brain. GERO comes from geoscience, a branch of biology born fifteen years ago, and is a project that was awarded a Fondap (Fund for Financing the Research Center in Priority Areas) granted by Conicyt (current National Agency for Research and Development). This translates into 10-year financing for the study of brain diseases. It is a program whose sponsoring institutions are the University of Chile and the Universidad Mayor; Court and his team work closely with Claudio Hetz, a scientist who also studies diseases related to aging. There is also a clinical area led by GERO's deputy director, Andrea Slchevsky, who works directly with a first cut of elderly patients. The project seeks to generate blood biomarkers to get an idea of ​​projection or conversion to dementia in older adults.

How does it work? Over a period of three years, a group of 300 individuals between 70 and 75 years old who present mild cognitive complaints are evaluated, this because within a year between 10% and 15% of these patients lead to senile dementia.

"There is still no effective therapy for Alzheimer's or dementia. And the problem is that we do not have an early diagnosis for diseases associated with aging of the nervous system. For Alzheimer there are some methods but they are very expensive," explains Court. The idea is to transform the information obtained into a kit that can measure the probability of presenting neurodegenerative diseases associated with aging and thus propose effective public policies.

Another risk factor, in addition to age, is socioeconomic status and this is associated with a lack of quality education. "We have a great health gap associated with inequity because many of these diseases come from childhood or even pregnancy. The lower the level of education, the greater the probability of having Alzheimer's. Diet, social and environmental factors, also play a role! , says the scientist.

Flies and Parkinson's

At the Integrative Biology Center they carry out studies on flies whose life expectancy is 80 days on average, which allows us to study longevity since, broadly speaking, it can be calculated that a fly day is equivalent to a human year. By means of genetic modifications, the intervened flies have lengthened their lives by 10%. But Court is emphatic in stressing that the purpose of his research is not longevity per se, let alone rejuvenation, but rather to modify the course of aging to address diseases associated with it.

Through a gene mutated and introduced into flies, they have specimens with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dementia. After having performed memory tests that contemplate stimuli and variables such as odors and lighting, "healthy" flies are able to solve mazes, but instead those with Alzheimer's are lost and those with Parkinson's show flaws in a geotactic system. This is biomedicine at the laboratory level, and if any positive result is found, the application time in humans would be approximately 10 years.

Court is emphatic in stressing that the purpose of his research is not longevity per se, let alone rejuvenation, but rather to modify the course of aging to address diseases associated with it.

Another project in which Felipe Court participates is a fund granted by the Michael J Fox. Foundation, an organization dedicated to the treatment of Parkinson's. It is a new therapeutic target that proposes to block the progression of the disease before the death of neurons occurs through the use of drugs that are being investigated to combat inflammatory diseases. The contribution is approximately 150 million pesos and the study period is two years, of which six months have already elapsed. The research was started by Maritza Oñate, a Ph.D. in Biology who is now pursuing her post-doctorate at Columbia University; and it appeared punctuated in a specialized magazine Cell Death and Differentiation, of the Nature family, last year. This pathway is also being tested with other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and neuropathies that are the consequence of chemotherapy treatments.

At the Integrative Biology Center they carry out studies on flies whose life expectancy is 80 days on average, which allows us to study longevity since, broadly speaking, it can be calculated that one day of fly equals one year of human life. Through genetic modifications, the intervened flies have lengthened their lives by 10%.


An organism, of any species, since its birth has a small percentage of senescent cells or "old cells" - explains the scientist to simplify - that the immune system is responsible for eliminating. But as we age we begin to accumulate these senescent cells as our system becomes less efficient.

A few years ago, James Kirkland, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic - a research entity in Rochester, Minnesotta - discovered a drug that helps eliminate these cells and thus increase life expectancy. "Chronic diseases have aging as their main risk factor. From the age of 70, one in three people will have a chronic disease. This is a problem for the patient and also for the health system. In the United States 30 percent is spent just to treat Alzheimer's, by caretakers. If you lower those senescent cells or what's causing aging, you're going to reduce the incidence of that disease. Gerociencia attacks the risk factor, "says Court. The therapy they are developing with the Michael J. Fox fund was discovered while studying aging and not Parkinson's specifically. "And it's working," he says.

The rest is music and art

He is also a violinist. His relationship with this instrument began at age eight and continues to this day, although for work reasons there are periods when he has had little time to dedicate to music. During his university days, he was active playing in plays by Juan Radrigán and Raúl Osorio. He even participated in The Finding, Radrigán's first opera with music by Patricio Solovera. In addition to playing the violin, Court studied biology and art in parallel. At the beginning he tried to dedicate himself to ecology: "I wanted to be a marine biologist, swim with dolphins or dive with Jacques Cousteau (laughs). But later I went to neuroscience under the influence of Professor Jaime Alvarez."

The art career did not end but it is also a hobby that he maintains and that today combines with science. "I make plastic art with microscopy. I gather neurons to make synapses with glial cells and I take photos of them. It is a circuit of neurons made in vitro. Then I have to mount hundreds of photos because the microscope that I use takes images of only 12 millimeters", He explains while showing in detail some of these images that could well be galaxies or underwater corals.

Currently, the neurobiologist also maintains a music band with some friends; It's called Indiana And they're mixing their first album that has ten songs. It is difficult for him to define his musical style, which started out inspired by bluegrass and later was derived towards indie folk. Court says that when he lived in Edinburgh he played different groups and even in orchestras. With Indiana, which also includes Ángel Solovera, Mario Figueroa and Ramón Ramírez, they have played on a couple of occasions in the Congress of the Future, among other instances.

The role of the company and the rescue of our microbiome

One of the challenges for those who dedicate themselves to scientific research is to achieve alliances with private companies, says Court: "It is also necessary to make a mea culpa because this also has to do with scientists who have imposed a way of working that the company it doesn't work ".

At Courtlab they currently work with the company Biome Therapeutics in the investigation of the microbiome, current name for what we usually knew as intestinal flora, and which is very much in vogue today in the scientific field. With Biome Therapeutics they are exploring the bacterial diversity of the native Chilean peoples. The biologist explains that with the industrialization process we have lost diversity of bacteria in the stomach. Why? Largely due to the consumption of industrialized food and also the use of antibiotics. And considering that a third of the metabolites that make up our blood come from our microbiome, it is an important factor to treat. It has also been verified that there is a higher incidence of allergies in industrialized populations, compared to more rural areas, and this data is also related to the reduction of the microbiome. "What we want to do is stop the loss of our bacterial biodiversity. For this we have collected some 30,000 bacteria in order to create a separator and we are testing if they are capable of producing probiotics. Biome Therapeutics has been to the surroundings of Putre to obtain samples population that has fed mainly on quinoa and meat, and who have never been to the doctor. Also to communities in the Alto Biobio and in Rapanui, "says the biologist, noting that in Chile we are still pending the construction of a national genome that serve as a reference.


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