Frederick Maxfield ’77, Chemistry

Frederick Maxfield
Frederick Maxfield, courtesy of Cornell Research

When high school and college students taking biology learn about the parts of the cell and how they interact together, they take it on faith that all of those little moving parts are doing what the textbook says they’re meant to.

But Frederick Maxfield, the Vladimir Horowitz and Wanda Toscanini Horowitz Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience and Chairman of Biochemistry at Weill Cornell Medical College, wants to be able to see in real time what’s going on. In his line of work, seeing is believing.

Using digital imaging devices, confocal microscopes, multiphoton microscopy, and image processing computers, Maxfield and his team peer inside living cells to figure out what makes them tick. “We use fluorescent tracers to follow the fates of specific molecules,” he says. “For example, we have used naturally fluorescent sterols to see how cholesterol moves around in cells.”

Being able to track the movements of cholesterol is more consequential than being able to tell how many eggs you’ve been eating lately: many serious diseases are related to cholesterol build-up, such as atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Niemann-Pick disease. While the first two disorders are widely known and sadly common, much of Maxfield’s work has focused on the rare Niemann-Pick disease. An inherited cholesterol metabolism disorder, it affects only about 1 in 150,000 people. But despite the disease’s relative obscurity, it seems to share features with the notorious Alzheimer’s. When researchers examine the brains of sufferers of both diseases, the similarities are striking.

Maxfield’s work is bringing us closer to figuring out how these diseases work. In 2011, his team showed the effects of a new drug, a kind of histone deacetylase inhibitor, on cells that carried the Niemann-Pick mutation. While it is too soon to tell whether it will be a breakthrough treatment, it’s possible this method may carry hope for sufferers of other disorders, as well as those afflicted by Niemann-Pick disease.