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Sweet discovery that maple syrup may prevent Alzheimer’s sparks media interest worldwide

maple-syrup-olivier-blondeau

The research is still in early stages — and it remains to be seen if compounds have the same impact on the brain when they are ingested. Photo: ©iStock.com | Olivier Blondeau.

Don Weaver, an adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry, announced results at the American Chemical Society meeting last weekend in San Diego, that suggest maple syrup extract may prevent proteins in brain cells from folding the wrong way — as they do in Alzheimer’s disease.

“One of the theories of Alzheimer’s disease is there are proteins — beta amyloid and tau peptide, in neurons — which clump up and cause harm to the brain,” Weaver told CBC News.

“We found that a particular extract from maple syrup prevented this clumping.”

The research is still in early stages — tests have only been conducted in a test tube so far and it remains to be seen if compounds have the same impact on the brain when they are ingested.

Weaver, who is a neurologist, researcher and multiple patent holder, is the director of the Krembil Research Institute. He has been dubbed the “origami master” of drug design, a nod to his work preventing the mis-folding of proteins that leads to clumping. His lab is currently is developing compounds for his latest biotech company, Treventis Inc., to address this phenomena.

A&S News talked to Weaver about the media’s interest in his discovery about maple syrup’s potential in preventing Alzheimer’s.

The story about your work was covered by media outlets in Canada, like the CBC and Ottawa Citizen but also as far away as the UK and Asia. Did you expect the story to generate so much interest? Why/Why not?

Yes, there has been widespread interest. I have received emails from people in India, since the story was covered in the Times of India. To date, it has been covered by more than 60 newspapers worldwide.

Personally, I was definitely surprised at the response. However, in retrospect, I suppose there are good reasons for this interest. Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease for which no curative or disease stabilizing therapies are available. To think that a lead could come from something like maple syrup has a delightful “quirkiness” that garners wide interest and appeal. Also, there is always interest in Canada, and it doesn’t get much more Canadian than maple syrup.

What did you think of the coverage? 

The coverage has been excellent. None of the coverage has “oversold” the results — all have emphasized that these are preliminary data and that we are not saying that maple syrup is a cure for dementia. They appreciate that these are early times and much work remains to be done. Also, much of the coverage has been rather humorous: “Don’t be a sap, consider maple syrup”; “Maple trees are an untapped resource.”

Why is it important for scientists to share their work with the broader public?

Yes, it is important that scientists share their work with the broader public. A great deal of research is funded by organizations like NSERC or CIHR. This is government distributed funding that originated from Canadian taxpayers. We owe a measure of accountability.

Also, since science plays such an important part in our everyday lives, it is imperative that the general public be aware of scientific research issues. Finally, it is important to engage the public in scientific issues — a knowledgeable public makes for a better country.

Some researchers are wary of sharing their results with media in case they are overstated or misinterpreted?  Was this a concern for you? What can scientists do to help ensure media report their work accurately?

Yes, this is definitely a concern. I have previously had media coverage that didn’t go exactly as I would have wanted, with results being somewhat overstated. Although this has not happened to date with this maple syrup story, it is always a concern.

Timelines sometimes make it challenging for the reporter to fact check the story with the scientist. Reporters are often reluctant to allow subjects to proofread their story, however, whenever possible, we should offer to fact-check parts for scientific accuracy and let the reporter know we are available if they require further clarification. When mistakes are made, it diminishes the impact of the story and the scientific message being delivered, and this is not desirable for anyone.