Dr. Thomas Morgan '07

Researching to help cure copper-related diseases

Dr. Thomas Morgan '07 says his LaGrange College chemistry and physics professors prepared him well for the research involved while earning his doctoral degree in bioengineering at Georgia Tech and for his current post-doctoral work as a biotechnical engineer at the university.

"As a teaching assistant at Georgia Tech, I see the students have so much information presented to them that they just can't hold on to it," Dr. Morgan says. "They cram so much in for the test that they remember it just for the test, and then it's gone.

"But at LaGrange College, especially during Jan Term, you have the chance to do your own research and digest what you learned," he says, speaking of the one month between fall and spring semesters when students either travel abroad or domestically, or engage in research and other intensive classes.

Dr. Morgan says the "personalized approach" of his professors at LaGrange College prepared him for the rigors ahead, especially in his research on studying the roles of copper in living cells.

"I remember walking into a professor's office at LaGrange unannounced and talking with him about organic chemistry for an hour," he says. "Another professor, Dr. Melvin Hall, has just been a great mentor to me."

As Dr. Morgan assisted Dr. Hall with research while at LaGrange College, he also tutored fellow students, which helped prepare him to teach at Georgia Tech. He evidently had a knack for the profession, as students taking science classes literally would form a line to see him in the Tutoring Center.

"I hope to teach at the college level one day at a small college like LaGrange," he says. "I've been inspired by Dr.( Bill) McCoy and Dr. (Melvin) Hall. But first, I want to get my fill of research at Georgia Tech, and then teaching will be the ultimate goal for me."

At Tech, Dr. Morgan makes fluorescent probes and affinity standard ligands to study the roles of copper in living cells.

"My role specifically has been to take a field where people have disregarded the need for water solubility and do basically what hasn't been done before, and that is to make water soluble probes and come up with some new synthetic methods in order to get it done," he says.

He hopes his work will lay a foundation for biochemists to want to learn more about possible roles of copper in human diseases. If he can show more clearly the role of copper in living cells, he says, it can hold the key to human diseases so scientists can learn how to better treat them. Diseases caused by copper imbalance include Wilson's or Menkes' disease, both of which are fatal. More recently, certain neurological disorders including ALS and Alzheimer's have been linked to disorders in copper metabolism.

According to his research, the development of a copper-specific fluorescent probe would "not only allow to monitor vesicular labile copper concentrations, but would also provide information about the subcellular distribution in cell lines with disorders in copper metabolism. In a larger context a copper specific fluorescent probe will be of great importance for the long-term development of novel diagnostic and therapeutic tools for copper related human diseases."

"Alzheimer's seems to be the most likely candidate now, but even if it doesn't turn out to be important in human disease, at least it improves our fundamental understanding of biochemistry with regard to copper," Dr. Morgan says. "It's one small piece of a very large puzzle."

Dr. Morgan visited his former stomping grounds, the Cason J. Callaway Science Building, at LaGrange College, this past spring  to share his research with students.

"When I was a student at LaGrange, I used to talk to my professors after every class and take up their time doing that, and that just wouldn't fly at a much bigger school," he says. "I came back to share my work because I am so proud of how I did at Georgia Tech by building on the foundation I got at LaGrange College. I wanted to come back and share that."