Jeff Agar

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Chemist Jeff Agar


A Daring Dream

Ever since he was a boy, chemist Jeff Agar was certain he wanted to cure disease in humans. Later, as a graduate student, he realized he wasn’t seeking to defeat just any disease, but a truly cruel killer whose progression is swift and unstoppable: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“ALS is the place where I thought I could make the biggest difference,” he says.

Agar’s scientific verve has brought him much closer to achieving that daring childhood dream. One of Brandeis’ youngest inventors, he has developed a novel method to treat Lou Gehrig’s that he believes is unlike any other approach in neurodegenerative research.

Agar has discovered and patented a novel class of compounds as well as an application for a class of drugs already thought to be useful in the treatment of metabolic disorders. The hope is that some of these compounds can be developed into treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS.

Underlying Agar’s research is the key discovery that changes taking place in proteins, such as oxidation, are toxic to motor neurons. His strategy is to commercialize a class of pharmaceuticals, called AGE inhibitors, that prevent modified proteins from killing motor neurons.

Morever, he has developed a portable kit using mass spectrometry, an analytic technique that measures the composition of physical samples, such as tumors and tissue, to detect disease, including ALS. Both are in the patent pipeline, and Agar is hammering out the final details of an agreement with ExSAR, a New Jersey drug-development company that is commercializing his ALS discovery research.

Agar says the entrepreneurial culture here played no small role in bringing him to Brandeis, where he works not only around the clock, but against the disease’s own deadly timeline. The fatal neuromuscular condition typically starts by affecting walking and ends by causing loss of respiratory function, all within the course of three-to-five relentlessly devastating years. Motor neurons transmit the command to move from the brain to the skeletal muscles, but in a person with ALS those motor neurons are weakened and ultimately destroyed by a toxic protein.

Agar seems to reflect the general sentiment about commercializing basic research at Brandeis: “I do basic research, but I’m not happy until it actually does something. Curing ALS in a dish is a good start, but treating it in humans is the ultimate goal.”