Trainee Spotlight: Dr. Alis Xu

October 10, 2022


Headshot of Alix Xu

New paper by first author Dr. Alis Xu in Dr. Joanne Matsubara's research group reveals that Müller cells--pivotal cells in the retina that support neurons--degenerate in the Alzheimer's diseased retina. Here, we interviewed Dr. Xu.

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Tell us about yourself.

I am a third year family medicine resident. My medical school education and undergraduate degree were both completed at the UBC. Since 2016, I have worked with Dr. Matsubara on various projects. This is the longest longitudinal study we’ve done together.

Tell us about this research story.

This is a multi-chapter story. This chapter started in 2017-2018. The previous chapter of this project was led by Dr. Sieun Lee. She was doing experiments that looked at amyloid beta in Alzheimer’s disease. From the results of this study, new idea emerged. We started to double-label amyloid beta and other cell types including astrocytes, microglia, as well as neurons. At that time, I was working as a medical student doing wet lab bench work and using the confocal microscope. 

What did you find in your research?

In our paper, we found that changes in the neurosupportive cell groups might be important in Alzheimer’s disease. Previously, the specific layer-wise localization of amyloid beta and its co-localization with other cell types have not been elucidated. We looked at the supporting cells such as microglia, astrocytes, and Müller cells.

Our findings show that in the human post-mortem retina of Alzheimer’s disease, there is an increase of immune inflammatory cells—a phenomenon called microgliosis. There is also a decrease of Müller cells, which are a subgroup of macroglia. This finding suggests that we could use the loss of Müller cells as biomarker for detection of early Alzheimer’s disease.

What was surprising to you?

Out of all the research experiences, I was working in the best research team possible. The supportive environment allowed multiple trials and errors and nurtured questions like “What kind of experiments are going to be worthwhile?” Moreover, the research team was diverse. We had undergraduate and graduate students, neuropathologists, neurologists, and engineers. This was the time when I did my Summer Student Research Project (SSRP).

How does your work affect the public?

Dementia is a very common condition. It is one of the most devastating disease for the elderly. Early diagnoses in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease could be beneficial for the patients. 

What are the next steps?

The spin-off of this project would be to study the microglia and Müller cell populations in more detail. We would use different kinds of immunostaining to pin point the location or activation state of the microglia in relation to other structures.

Collaboration with clinical researchers to do in vivo experiments would tell us more about this research story. Using non-invasive ways of imaging such as ophthalmic imaging instead of other current standards would be helpful for the patients.

What can readers do to support your work? 

Continue to support this project and the students working on the project.

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