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College of Engineering and Computing

  • Biomedical engineering alum Ryan Geiser

Alum creates innovative collaboration in leading Alzheimer’s disease research

Ryan’s energy as a student, researcher and student organization officer was unlimited and contagious. He identified and embraced every opportunity to advance himself and his work as well as to secure resources for his success and the success of other students.

- Melissa Moss, professor and chair, Department of Chemical Engineering

According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 50% to 75% of all cases. While more than 55 million people worldwide were living with dementia in 2020, that number is expected to increase to 78 million in 2030. To better help understand Alzheimer’s disease, alum Ryan Geiser has created innovative collaborations and led research over the last five years during his master’s and Ph.D. programs at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

His grandfather's Alzheimer's disease made Geiser aware and interested in exploring the fundamentals and progression of a disease that has no cure, treatment or prevention. His 23andMe test also detected a variant for a slight increased risk of late-onset Alzheimer's disease.

“Knowing that naturally created much interest and helped me in my research,” Geiser says. “I've worked with Alzheimer’s patients before, which is something you don't get to do in the lab. You should be able to look at whom you're impacting, which I think is a driving force.”

Geiser graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. He credits Biomedical Engineering Program Director Mark Uline and Chemical Engineering Department Chair Melissa Moss for cultivating his interest, providing opportunities and encouraging him to pursue advanced degrees.

“Ryan is very intelligent, highly motivated and possesses all the soft interpersonal skills. He is particularly memorable mostly due to his seemingly bottomless well of passion for both the biomedical engineering discipline and service to the program and university,” Uline says. “It was always clear that he was often thinking about how to advance healthcare through innovative engineering approaches.”

At Cambridge, Geiser earned his master’s degree in biophysics in 2018 and will finish his Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry later this year. He was named a Gates Cambridge Scholar upon starting the Ph.D. program and currently works on research for repurposing drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. 

“The Gates Scholars supplemented my research by allowing me to continue exploring different avenues of healthcare. Through discussions with the many different people, the community allowed me to learn about the different fields and figure out the most effective ways to improve the lives of others,” Geiser says.

Part of Geiser’s research is investigating and better understanding the folding and misfolding of proteins associated with the disorders. A leading theory is that accumulating misfolded and immature proteins produces a cascade of issues that causes memory loss. He compares the manifestation to origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.

“When you make origami, it has a specific structure with internalized sticky spots to hold it into in place,” Geiser says. “With Alzheimer’s disease, if it folds incorrectly, these sticky spots are exposed to the outside and bind to proteins, creating a massive clump that prevents nutrients from getting to the neurons, impairs the cellular walls, and ultimately destroys the cells. Part of my research looks at finding medications that may break up that congestion or prevent it from ever occurring.”

Geiser joined Cambridge’s Centre for Misfolding Diseases (CMD) as a Whitaker International Program Fellow during his master’s studies. His enjoyment of the lab and his supervisor and colleagues were critical in his decision to pursue his Ph.D. and continue working at the CMD.

“Ryan’s work has opened a new path by bringing together biophysics, molecular biology and epidemiology in an innovative manner. His interdisciplinary approach is creating novel and exciting opportunities in drug discovery for Alzheimer's disease,” says Michele Vendruscolo, co-director of the CMD.

Geiser’s collaborations make his research different from other Ph.D. students. He believes interdisciplinary partnerships between departments and fields are critical for conquering a problem like Alzheimer's disease. This led him to create the first collaboration between Cambridge University’s Department of Chemistry and Cambridge Public Health. 

Geiser brought together two leading Alzheimer’s disease scientists. His supervisor, Professor Sir Chris Dobson of the Department of Chemistry, co-founded the CMD and was influential in revolutionizing how the causes of protein misfolding disease are researched. This lab-based team included other leaders, such as Vendruscolo and Janet Kumita from the Department of Pharmacology. Carol Brayne, director of Cambridge Public Health, transformed how these diseases are approached in the public health spectrum. Geiser worked on the epidemiology team with research associates Jane Fleming and Sally Hunter. 

Geiser is using population-based longitudinal study data collected over several decades at the Cambridge Department of Public Health and Primary Care to determine if there are any drugs for further study in the Department of Chemistry labs. The drugs would be examined to determine if they influenced the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Geiser called the collaboration a power team but admitted it was difficult bringing the entire team together due to their different views on the underlying causes of Alzheimer's disease.

“My goal was not to get them to change their minds but to understand where they were coming from and focus our team energy on the research at hand. Any unnecessary conflict was eliminated by making sure people were on the same broad page and allowing everyone the opportunity to focus on their expertise,” Geiser says.

Geiser enjoys leading small teams from a larger combined group of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from the CMD and Cambridge Public Health. “The entire CMD is over 100 people from 32 nationalities. I work with a very diverse, unique team, which requires great empathy combined with a rally the troops mentality” Geiser says. 

Geiser admits that it is easy for people to be exhausted going to the lab every day. But he is committed to his research thanks to his continued intellectual curiosity in exploring the hardiest issues facing healthcare like Alzheimer's disease. 

“That constant learning and adapting is crucial. Even in my own lab over the last five years, I've seen changes in our most basic assumption. I think my team is a microcosm of the entire research field of Alzheimer's disease, and we’ve seen many shifts in our interests and focus,” Geiser says. “You must be innovative, adaptable, and flexible and love learning these processes.”

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