Alzheimer’s and the handedness of molecules

Japanese scientist Reiko Kuroda discovered the functional importance of the difference between “left-handed” and “right-handed” molecules, which has applications including research on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. In addition to being a distinguished scientist, she has had many government and international roles, including being a member of the advisory board to the Japanese Prime Minister on science and technology.

The scientific word for Professor Reiko Kuroda’s specialty is chirality, a word that simply means, “handedness”. All types of living and non-living things, even the smallest components of our bodies, exhibit chirality – in other words, they are either right-handed or left-handed.

Helping to Understand the Origin of Life

One of the foremost scientists in her field as well as a member of the Japanese Commission to the UNESCO, Professor Kuroda has invented several novel instruments for investigating the chirality of molecules — determining whether they are right-handed or left-handed, or revealing the structures of chiral molecules — and the effects of such “handedness” on a variety of physical and biological systems. Notably, she was the first to invent a device for measuring chirality in solid matter at a time when existing instruments could only measure liquids.

Today she is using her inventions to study how certain proteins, including those implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, adopt a particular structure. Her basic research into chirality at the molecular level, whether biological or non-biological, has important implications for manufacturing drugs and agricultural chemicals, as well as for the study of gene-determining animal body asymmetry, such as snail coiling.

The ultimate reasons for such handedness still remain a mystery that, for very compelling reasons, Professor Kuroda hopes to help solve. “When, why and how the handedness of the biological world occurred is one of the essential keys to investigating the origin of life on this planet.”

Bridging the Gap between Science and the Public

In addition to her groundbreaking research, Reiko Kuroda is also an activist for science. During her term as Vice-President of the International Council for Science, she helped launch a program entitled "Future Earth" and travelled the world to raise awareness of environmental issues and humanitarian concerns. Correspondingly, she is deeply concerned by the public’s overall lack of scientific knowledge and awareness. At the University of Tokyo she set up the Science Interpreter Training Course, with the intent to, “nurture citizens with scientific literacy and scientists with social literacy.”

Challenging Gender Stereotypes

With regard to the obstacles facing women in science that she herself encountered, Professor Kuroda takes a lighthearted view of what must have been a discouraging situation.

“My biggest challenge was quite simply to obtain a position that would enable me to carry out research. In my day, it was almost impossible for a woman to be given a university post in Japan unless she was very well-connected or very lucky. Even my Ph.D. supervisor told me that the best thing for women is to get married. So I went to England!” Luckily for science, Reiko Kuroda was a young woman who would not give up easily.

More about Professor Reiko Kuroda:

For Women in Science

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