issue Summer 2021

World-Class Research Organized Into Therapeutic Centers of Excellence

More than 75 RFU scientists and six disease-focused research centers, including three within the Brain Science Institute, moved into the newly constructed Innovation and Research Park (IRP) in January 2020. Shortly thereafter, the pandemic forced the suspension of bench work, paused investigations and closed labs to all but essential operations for several months. But much of the work of research — the writing and publication of manuscripts, extramural grant applications and data analysis — continued with a steely determination. Following are updates by IRP center directors.

Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Therapeutics

Director: Grace “Beth” Stutzmann, PhD

Focus: We collaborate within and outside the center to advance our research objectives and create new applications. Current strengths include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, TBI and stem cell biology, with pilot projects in Down syndrome, ALS and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), among others. We’re studying pathophysiological, genetic, metabolic and environmental contributors to disease. 

Future: Novel biomarkers, novel therapeutic strategies, expansion of disease base. While devising treatments for neurodegenerative diseases is a common goal in the field, most researchers are repeating the same strategies, which hasn’t worked. Our expertise centers on innovative strategies generated from mechanistic and bioinformatics approaches that we use to understand these diseases; these are largely stem cell, small molecule and gene therapy-based toolkits. We’d love to move further into the clinical realm and work with industry partners.

Stanson Toshok Center for Brain Function and Repair

Director: William N. Frost, PhD

Focus: We use state-of-the-art approaches to study the neurocircuitry of the brain, applied to both normal and abnormal function. Our current research focuses on addiction, aging, Parkinson’s disease, learning and memory, autism spectrum disorder, opioids, neurodevelopmental disorders and gender development.

Future: The center’s newest faculty member, Eun Jung Hwang, PhD, uses large-scale, two-photon brain imaging to record the firing activity of genetically defined neural circuits in awake behaving animals. Combined with other sophisticated techniques for recording and controlling network activity, our center scientists are well-positioned to discover principles of brain function that may facilitate methods for restoring neural networks damaged by aging, injury or disease.

Center for Neurobiology of Stress Resilience and Psychiatric Disorders

Director: Janice Urban, PhD

Focus: To enhance the understanding of mental illness and resilience through innovative and collaborative research programs that contribute to improved prevention and treatment of psychiatric disease. 

Future: Our goal for the future is to expand our research capabilities through strategic faculty hires and diversified collaborations that will increase the translational relevance of our work. Our research will provide a better understanding of the neural circuitry underlying affective disorders, which will lead to the development of novel therapeutic targets and methods of treating and supporting those suffering from psychiatric illness.

Center for Genetic Diseases

Director: Michelle Hastings, PhD

Focus: We investigate the pathological mechanisms of a wide variety of diseases — including but not limited to cystic fibrosis, Usher and Down syndromes, Batten, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease — and work to discover novel therapeutics for their treatment.

Future: We seek to provide genetic information, therapeutic targets and solutions to maximize an individual’s potential for health and well-being. We’re in a world in which people are becoming more informed about their genetic makeup and disease risks. This information enables the development of more precise and personalized medicines. We know that our genetic profiles account for differences in our response to COVID-19, which highlights the importance of better understanding our genetic makeup.

Center for Proteomics and Molecular Therapeutics

Director: Marc Glucksman, PhD

Focus: We provide expertise, management and cutting-edge medical research strategies using technology and bioinformatics. Our center is uniquely suited to study diseases with “big data” and over a 10 billionfold scale from individual atoms and molecules to cells to the human body using high throughput biochemistry and proteomics, structural biology and systems physiology to leverage normal and abnormal molecular and organismal functions and target therapeutic approaches to clinical questions about chronic diseases — diabetes, aging and metabolic disorders, pediatric gene disorders, multidrug resistance, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Future: Our goal is to pivot to new health threats like SARS-CoV-2, assist other centers and incubator startups, and vet therapeutics where possible.

Center for Cancer Cell Biology, Immunology and Infection

Director: Johnny He, PhD

Focus: We study the molecular basis of virology and viral pathogenesis and virus-induced cancers, the role of inflammation in cancer and autoimmune diseases, the etiological agents of infectious diseases and host-defense mechanisms. Our research focuses on the basic science of the pathogenesis of diseases in the areas of virology, immunology, and cell and cancer biology.

Future: We want to build a Center of Excellence in Inflammation. We plan to accomplish this by developing inflammation-focused research collaborations among our large group of faculty with diverse expertise in the areas of virology, immunology and cancer, and by recruiting new talent who are specialized in inflammation research and who facilitate and promote our existing research collaborations.