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Free Radical Discovery a Hallmark of Allan Butterfield’s 45-Year Research Career

By Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis

When you look back at a 45-year career, there are a multitude of moments that stand out. For Allan Butterfield, Professor of Biological Chemistry in the University of Kentucky College of Arts & Sciences, his signature discovery grew from just such a Eureka moment on the sidewalk on campus. 

“I was walking back from Sanders-Brown Center on Aging to the Chemistry Building — two or three blocks — I kept asking myself, why are there so many proteins that are known to be altered in Alzheimer's disease? Why isn’t there just one?” Butterfield said, “And it occurred to me, ‘Oh, what if there is a free radical in the brain that is hitting all these different proteins and different lipids and causing them to be defective?’ I was so deep in thought about it that I almost got hit by a car.”

He went back to Sanders-Brown and borrowed some amyloid beta peptide, or Abeta, a substance that accumulates in the brains of people who have Alzheimer's. He tested the peptide and, sure enough, a free radical signal was there. 

“So our lab discovered the free radical associated with this peptide and changed the paradigm of how you think about the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease.” Butterfield published this discovery in 1994, and in a year’s time it was widely accepted. Over the course of his career, nearly 700 papers came out of his highly productive laboratory and he’s trained students who have gone on to research careers around the globe. 

In this podcast, you’ll hear Butterfield’s take on why many amyloid Alzheimer’s drugs have failed — “They’ve forgotten their chemistry. They’re targeting the wrong point of the process.” — and why he’s now serving in an administrative role as Associate Vice President for Centers & Institutes and Research Priority Areas within UK Research.