Meet the UNC Pembroke professor leading research on Alzheimer’s disease

By Ivey Schofield

Ben Bahr, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke since 2009, is a renowned researcher of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists have been trying to determine ways to prevent and slow the onset of Alzheimer’s, which affects more than 5 million people in the United States

Bahr has won several awards. In 2017, he became the first UNCP professor to receive the Oliver Max Gardner Award for his research – the highest honor given by the UNC Board of Governors. 

The Border Belt Independent asked Bahr a series of questions about his work and life in southeastern North Carolina. His responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Q: How did you get into Alzheimer’s research?

A: I was from California, and I went to University of California, Santa Barbara. I wanted a really good aquatic biology program. When I took my first marine biology course, it bored me to tears. Then I discovered courses like genetics and cell biology, which is really where I learned my passion for how cells work. I knocked on a lot of doors of professors to see who had room for an undergraduate who would make mistakes in the lab. I learned a lot, and turns out I was helping to identify targets for Alzheimer’s disease and other brain diseases. So I stayed in Santa Barbara and got my Ph.D. in chemistry. 

Q: What have you found in your research?

A: Alzheimer’s disease is probably the most complicated and hair-pulling disease. Every time we think we’ve gotten close, somebody else discovers something and we say, “Wait a minute, we have all that wrong.” The big amyloid plaques that people see, everyone thought that was the disease. Turns out it’s the aftermath. It’s a protein accumulation disease, or what we call a garbage accumulation disease. All the nerve cells and other cells are having trouble getting rid of material that’s accumulating inside them. 

We really needed to look at why these accumulation events were occurring and how we could get rid of them. It turns out every one of the cells in your brain and your whole body has little tiny things inside called lysosomes. Consider them like garbage disposals. My group discovered that there are self-repair mechanisms that try to get rid of those protein accumulation events. And I discovered through lysosomes that, as we age, our little garbage disposals don’t work so well anymore. Now there are companies and even Harvard professors that focus on how we find drugs and other therapies to make lysosomes and the other protein-clearing machinery work hard.

I also was the first to get UNCP to handle patent law in 2014. It’s well known that exercise and a really good diet helps reduce your risk of dementia. So we looked at ways that we could combine natural products. We tested to see what it’s doing to the lysosomes, and then we mixed this natural product into rat food. That natural product made the animals perform better on memory tests. We just want to publish the work and try to get a company interested in manufacturing and distributing the drug. 

Q: Why come to Pembroke for your research?

A: I followed the direction of where the cool work was going. We decided to look for a different place, mostly because the wife was getting sick of the snow at the University of Connecticut. In Pembroke, they gave me a nice research space. They gave me the ability to work with lots of students. My biggest thrill is watching students catch that bug of research – finding out they did something in a lab that no one else has done before. They’ve also allowed me to train students from all over the world. I’ve actually worked with people from 30 different countries. 

Q: How have you helped dementia research expand in the state?

A: With a big five-year grant from the National Institute of Health, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill came together to form the Azheimer’s Disease Research Center. There are only 33 in the whole country, and North Carolina is now one of the few states with more than one center. (Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem also has a center). My job is to help up-and-coming young scientists – whether they’re undergraduates, high school students, or just got their Ph.D. – get training or at least exposure to the kind of work being done.

Twelve years ago, UNC Pembroke would have never thought that they would be connected to Duke and Chapel Hill to be part of this. But I kept pushing our biotech center to have enough research going on and get enough exposure that they came to us. I was just trying to raise up UNC Pembroke, so hopefully I’m doing my job. Now I’ve lost count of how many students have come through my lab and gone on to get their Ph.D. They’re now working in places like Rutgers and Wake Forest. It’s very exciting to see them come back and give talks to inspire students.

Q: What advice do you have for students interested in dementia research?

A: Don’t be scared to walk in a laboratory and try. I can’t tell you how many times a student has said, “I can’t do math, so I can’t be in a lab.” I tell them to just come in and practice with the math. We’ll see how your brain works, and I’ll figure out a way to get you to understand. 

You also have to fail on certain things. You’re going to make mistakes. But as soon as students are not scared of making a mistake, they’ll come in and start working. 

As a professor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Ben Bahr leads research on dementia,
including Alzheimer’s disease.
Photo from UNCP