Three minute thesis explores the delivery of Vitamin E

Mikel Ghelfi takes you on a science travelogue to explain parts of his doctoral research in chemistry.

Ghelfi studies the molecular pathways and actions in the body of Vitamin E — one of the key molecules that acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells.

His research is set on a course to provide further insight into how Vitamin E protects our brain by understanding the forces that guide the specific delivery of Vitamin E. His study is another piece of the puzzle toward the science being dedicated around the world to stopping neurodegenerative processes and diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

Ghelfi, who is from Trimbach, Switzerland, was a finalist in last year’s Three Minute Thesis® (3MT®) contest at Brock. The 2016 Call for 3MT® Proposals is now open to Brock graduate students who want to have a fun and challenging way to talk about their research and, in the process, expand their research communications skills. The contest is held each year in conjunction with Brock’s annual Mapping the New Knowledges (MNK) Graduate Student Research Conference that is presented in partnership by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Students’ Association.

Graduate students who are interested in competing this year are invited to a workshop in January to help prepare their presentations. Brock’s 3MT® preliminary round will be held on Feb. 23 and the top finishers will advance to the contest finals that will be held at the MNK conference on Thursday, April 7. Complete contest details and the online submission form for proposals (due by Jan. 25) can be found online.

Ghelfi says he participated in the contest last year to test himself in the “art of explaining your own research topic to a stranger.”

“The contest asks you to wisely choose key words and sentences that create a metaphor of your research that will grasp and inspire the audience,” he says. “Explaining your research to others is a key fragment of an academic education and 3MT® gives you the perfect platform to flourish in this skill.”

In his 3MT® presentation, Ghelfi explains his work by comparing it to the transportation systems we commonly use on a daily basis, such as moving goods around the world. He says the body is an even more advanced delivery system — a system that we barely understand.

“Vitamin E is fat soluble and for this reason, mainly found in the cell membrane, where it protects the membrane from radicals, super reactive molecules that normally destroy our cells,” says Ghelfi who is supervised by Professor Jeffrey Atkinson.

“What I want to find out is: how does this fat soluble Vitamin E get transported specifically to the membrane when humans are to the widest extent a big bag of water.”

Ghelfi is using fluorescent molecules to track Vitamin E as it is carried from cell to cell through a protein called TTP.

“Fluorescence is really simple,” he says. “You shine light with a low wavelength onto a molecule and the absorbed energy is given off in a higher wavelength. Higher wavelengths penetrate much better through cell tissue than lower wavelengths and this allows us to follow fluorescent molecules in the cell by a fluorescent microscope.

“I created a fluorescent analogue of Vitamin E that has a high affinity to the TTP protein. You can see how it travels around in the cell and how it interacts with other cell compartments.”

His work has caught the attention of a research colleague at Case Western University who, in a study with mice, found that a lack of Vitamin E over a prolonged time led to neurodegenerative damage in their brains.

“He needs my compound to create 3D images of the brain to identify the regions that are affected and, hopefully, to see how we can prevent it,” Ghelfi explains.

Watch the video of Ghelfi’s 3MT® presentation:

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