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Biology professor uses fruit flies to study Alzheimer's disease

Michelle Steinhilb and her staff use flies to study the root causes of the disease

Dr. Michelle Steinhilb (second from left) and some of her students; (far left) Robert Eppler, (middle) Derek Resio, (second from right) Olivia Allen and (far right) Jacob Szczepanski, Monday, Jan. 25, on the Biosciences terrace.

Sometimes while researching complex diseases, information that may lead to treatment is found in unexpected sources. For Alzheimer’s research at Central Michigan University, one of these sources is fruit flies.

Fruit flies, considered by most to be a nuisance living it up in trash cans, are integral to the research of biology faculty member Michelle Steinhilb.

Steinhilb is studying the root causes of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior.

Senior Jacob Szczepanski takes fly vials out of storage, Monday, Jan. 25, in Dr. Michelle Steinhilb’s lab.

Fruit flies are used to study the degeneration that leads to Alzheimer’s in humans. They are inexpensive and produce quickly. This makes them an excellent option for Steinhilb’s research.

Using what Steinhilb calls a “toolbox of genetic tools,” she and her research team are able to engineer flies that produce a specific human protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease called tau. Using various mutations, they can synthesize the tau protein in different parts of the fly like the eyes, the brain or the muscle system. Once they have the fly they want, they can study how the cells live and die.

“I really want to help people and I really want to make their lives better,” Steinhilb said. “If my research could somehow help, you know, illuminate a strategy that drug makers or companies could use to help solve this terrible disease, it would mean a lot to me.”

Steinhilb’s research not only helps those affected by Alzheimer’s disease, but benefits the students working in her lab. She mentors them and helps them prepare for their future careers. One student, Ionia senior Bobby Eppler, has worked in her lab since freshman year.

“You can tell that she really just cares,” Eppler said. “She cares about her research but she really really cares about the people that are working with her.”

Eppler will be attending medical school at CMU in the fall. He says his time in Dr. Steinhilb’s lab has helped him learn accountability and responsibility, as well as make connections within the medical field.

Eppler’s roommate, Saginaw senior Derek Resio, also works in the same lab. Resio has a personal interest in Alzheimer’s disease after losing a family member to it. He is hoping to continue Alzheimer's research in graduate school and in his career.

Both Eppler and Resio said that Steinhilb has helped them gain experience, given advice on graduate school applications and written letters of recommendation. 

“It’s a relationship that promotes growth,” Resio said. “It’s really just a positive, beneficial relationship where you feel like you can always talk to her.”

Steinhilb is equally grateful to her students for the amount of work they put into the research

“This work couldn’t be done without students,” Steinhilb said. “I don’t really get to be in the lab doing many of the experiments, all that hard work gets done by my students and so I would definitely say that they deserve so much credit.”