Robarts Profile: Jonatan Snir - Making a mark on Alzheimer's disease

Jonatan Snir, PhD Candidate in Medical Biophysics, is truly purple and proud. He is nearing the completion of his third degree from Western University, and second from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry with research experience at Robarts.
Snir believes his exceptional educational journey is a significant advantage.

“I’ve had a very interesting and versatile experience at Western,” he said. “I’ve developed some great connections and mentors, which have really opened the door to my research.”

Originally from Israel, Snir arrived in Canada with his family in 2001. He earned his BSc with an honors specialization in medical physics at Western, followed by an MSc from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry in medical biophysics with the Foster lab.

Now, after more than a decade on campus pursuing academic excellence, the 32-year-old is working on his PhD through the CAMPEP Clinical Program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

Studying with supervisor Rob Bartha, an imaging scientist, Snir is involved in the groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research taking place at Robarts.

Bartha, who is also working with Dr. Stephen Pasternak, a neurologist and scientist at Robarts, is developing new imaging contrast agents that target specific proteins associated with the disease.

Snir’s research utilizes this approach, focusing on the early detection of Alzheimer’s through a special enzyme that over-expresses in patients diagnosed with the disease. This over-expression has been shown to precede the more commonly targeted Alzheimer’s pathologies of neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques.

“Using optical imaging, we have been able to differentiate Alzheimer's animal models as early as five months of age, and before progressive cognitive decline,” he said.

Because optical imaging is not possible in regular clinical settings, Snir is investigating other imaging methods for early detection in patients. “Our next step is to try to reach the same outcome using an imaging modality that is more translatable to the clinic,” Snir explained.

The easiest and most efficient option is positron emission tomography (PET). “PET imaging is a go-to because it is very sensitive,” he said.

This is the current stage of Snir’s research, but his goal is to work toward MRI imaging as the ideal outcome.

The PhD candidate’s contributions to this research area have not gone unnoticed.

Snir presented an abstract at the 2014 World Molecular Imaging Congress in Seoul, Korea this September, receiving a high score and excellent feedback.

But he says the opportunity to network with other imaging scientists and researchers was the highlight of his trip. “It opened up the doors to collaboration with other researchers and institutions,” he said.

Outside the research lab, Snir enjoys creative outlets. He plays the piano and DJ’s at a bar downtown on weekends. He is also an amateur photographer.

He says there is a link between these pursuits and the lab. “Part of research involves certain creative problem-solving,” he said. “Having a versatile experience outside of your field gives you new perspectives on approaching tough problems.”

With Alzheimer’s predicted to strike more than one million Canadians during the next 20 years, Snir’s problem-solving will certainly be put to the test.