By Brian Bohl, Staff Writer
The vapid fifth-floor hallway inside a Mineola-based facility contains the ambience of a typical office building. No outward signs of potential scientific breakthroughs are visible walking off the crammed elevator. But the keypad-guarded doors belie what waits inside.
Hofstra senior Joshua Ross often makes this trek to the lab. Despite being barely old enough to rent a car, the biology major is part of Winthrop-University Hospital's Applied Bench Core. Like most college seniors, Ross is anxious about graduate school and the job market. Unlike most of his contemporaries, that future involves increasing the knowledge of a possible link between Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
Almost 25 percent of Alzheimer's patients show symptoms of Parkinson's, according to a paper written by the 21-year-old Ross with Dr. Tom Jeitner, a lead scientist at Winthrop and an assistant professor at Stony Brook University's Department of Medicine. The paper and subsequent research continues to examine possible causes of cell death with a focus on dopamine; a neurotransmitter that affects brain processes that controls movement and emotional responses.
Alzheimer's disease afflicts nearly 5.3 million people in this country alone. The disorder destroys brain cells, causing memory loss and problems with thinking and behavior, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Parkinson's patients suffer impaired motor skills as a result of the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
Ross said the paper with Jeitner was a precursor to two upcoming studies involving neurons, which are cells that are the key components of the body's nervous system. One study involves growing neurons that will add bleach to one batch and bleach and dopamine to another to see what causes higher rates of cell death—gleaning information that could prove vital in how doctors are able to stem the negative effects of neurological diseases.
The experiments can also be useful for Ross' professional career. As he completes his seventh month working in the lab, the Hofstra pre-med specialist is waiting for a response from Stony Brook, where he hopes to attend medical school following his graduation in May.
"I don't plan on being the lab-rat type of guy," Ross said. "I want to treat patients. I want to give them the best possible care and by doing research, it would help me do that."
Ross' desire to deal with people instead of solely working with hard data is evident as he works his way through the lab's numerous crevices. He hugs technician Ahmed Ibrahim, who recently suffered a death in his family.
Tragedy is also what helped steer Ross into the medical field. His mother, an operating room technician, died of colon cancer in November.
"They [doctors] gave her 1-2 years—she made it seven," Ross said. "A real fighter; the bravest person I ever met and the nicest person you'll ever know.
"That's how she met my dad, in the OR of Nassau County Medical Center. As my dad said, it was love at first sight. It's a cute story."
Ross, who has a younger sister who goes to the University of Miami and an older brother who also attends Hofstra, said his family went to many doctors and even made a trip to Germany in the hopes of finding something to treat the colon cancer.
"No one had more operations than her," Ross said. "She had every complication you could have…but she kept fighting. She wanted to be there for us.
"That is what sealed the deal for me to go into medicine. Without any reservation, it is the reason why I'm going into this field. When you're in medicine, I feel it's not just about treating the patient. You're helping everyone who knows this person."
The optimal outcome is proving that the neurons containing chlorinated (bleach) dopamine species is causing the symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease, Ross said. From that knowledge, Ross added that scavenger compounds could prevent a reaction between bleach and dopamine.
Jeitner said Ross has been looking at scavenger compounds that could block reactions for people who show Parkinsonian symptoms, specifically in people who have Alzheimer's.
"Some of those compounds are already in pharmaceutical use," Jeitner said. "The hope is that by mitigating the reactions, it will offer some relief. It's bad enough that people have Alzheimer's. To give them the added burden of having movement disorders is cruel. Hopefully we can do something to stop that."
As part of his experiments, Ross uses a spectrophotometer to shine ultraviolet light on cells to see how much is absorbed. The actual scanning process take a minute but the preparation for the cell batches typically takes 2-3 hours long and sometimes the experiments call for longer time durations to track the reactions between dopamine and bleach. The painstaking process isn't frustrating, Ross said.
"It's like raising a baby, you have to do it carefully and you have to be thorough with it if you want the baby to be healthy and the cells to be healthy," he said.
Jeitner said Ross is dedicated and enthusiastic about his research and said the two plan on working together as Ross continues his education.
"The real pleasure is seeing someone start to develop their own ideas about the work," Jeitner said. "I can run the project without anyone's involvement, but when you have other ideas and perspective brought to it; it's one of the reasons why I like working with people."
Ross said he also enjoys that human interaction and has been familiar with the medical field by observing his father's work. Bruce Ross is an orthopedic surgeon at Winthrop.
"Josh has been around the business for a long time," Jeitner said. "I think it's great that he's figured out what he wants to do. I think he'll be really good at it. He has the right personality for it."
Ross is raising money for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life in honor of his mother, Robin Ross. Please visit hofstrarelay.com for details on how to donate and participate.