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Texas Woman's team receives federal grant for neurodegenerative disease research
TWU students Jennifer Duncan, Kristina Warren, Yasar Kasu and Katie Vela perform neurodegeneration-related research funded by the National Institute of Health. Photo by: Michael Modecki
Biology faculty member and students working to pinpoint link between protein fragments and brain cell dysfunction to slow disease progression
Recent national funding will assist a Texas Woman’s University biology faculty member and his team of students in the race to find ways to slow down the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded a three-year grant valued at $373,000 to a team led by Christopher Brower, Ph.D., TWU assistant professor of biology, who is studying specific human protein fragments associated with the breakdown of brain cell function.
According to the NIH, more than 6 million Americans suffer from these neurodegenerative disorders, and these numbers continue to increase as the aging population grows.
Studying Proteins and Pathways
Four years ago, Brower was inspired to follow his path of inquiry.
“I was reading articles in various publications about neurodegenerative diseases, and I noticed a link,” Brower said. “Most neurodegenerative diseases were associated with sticky fragments of proteins that accumulated within brain cells.”
Proteins are building blocks in the human body. Within the cells, these proteins have different functions. Over time, proteins can break down, often resulting in fragments that operate differently than they should.
Cells contain a number of pathways to remove these fragments before they are able to cause damage. Sometimes, however, these dysfunctional fragments escape removal and accumulate in the cell, interfering with normal cell function.
Brower tested a number of disease-associated fragments in the lab at the California Institute of Technology, where he was working at the time.
“We were working on a particular protein removal pathway and discovered it could remove these toxic protein fragments,” he said. “We also discovered the identity of the amino acid on the end of the fragment determined how fast the fragmented protein could be removed.”
Brower’s current research focuses on sticky fragments of a particular protein called TDP43. When functioning normally, TDP43 aids in the production of other important proteins in the human body. Recently, fragments of TDP43 were found in the brain cells of patients with ALS and other forms of dementia.
Brower and his team at TWU are trying to understand if disease is caused by the loss of normal TDP43 function or toxicity from the clumping together of these protein fragments. They also are trying to understand why the protein fragments accumulate in some people but not others.
“For some reason, these fragments are not being removed from the cells as they should be,” Brower said. “We know something is happening, but we need to figure out why. If we can stimulate protein removal pathways, we will determine if the removal of these fragments makes a difference with neurodegeneration.”
The NIH grant funds the expansion of this research, which entails producing TDP43 fragments in laboratory mice with altered protein removal pathways. This will help Brower and his research team to replicate the removal pathways in human brain cells.
Christopher Brower, Ph.D., TWU assistant professor of biology. Photo by: Michael Modecki
Balancing Research and Instruction
Brower’s team includes TWU graduate students Jennifer Duncan and Yasar Kasu and undergraduates Katie Vela and Kristina Warren. Brower’s reputation and enthusiasm drew the students to the project.
The team has been working together for more than a year and already are seeing the benefits this experience will give them as they pursue advanced degrees or launch their professional careers.
“When we started, there wasn’t a lab,” said Warren, a senior biology major with an emphasis in research. “We set up this lab – as students. Every day, we are learning new protocols and getting hands-on experience. That’s what makes TWU different. When I graduate, I will already have this research background to bring to the table.”
The graduate students on his team cite Brower’s passion as contagious and his support as unyielding, which is crucial as they advance in their academic careers.
“The biology department is like a family,” said Kasu, who is pursuing his doctorate in molecular biology. “We know we can get help from any of the faculty or other students just by asking. But, it’s the research Dr. Brower is doing here that made me want to come to TWU.”
Two years ago, Brower left the California Institute of Technology and joined TWU because he wanted to become more involved in teaching in addition to his research. TWU was the perfect place to allow him to do both.
“The university allows me to balance my research priorities with my instructional ones,” he said. “I enjoy mentoring these students and seeing the discoveries they are making in the lab. The students performing this research today may be the scientists who discover the disease cures in the future.”
Research at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) grows every year thanks to federal and state funding, foundations and other private donations. In 2015, the university received $7.5 million in external grants to support faculty research and projects focused on nursing, health sciences, social work and education.
Texas Woman’s University is the largest public university in the nation primarily for women and has an enrollment of approximately 15,000 students on campuses in Denton, Dallas and Houston. Since its founding in 1901, TWU has produced more than 88,000 graduates in fields vital to the growth and quality of life in Texas and the nation, including nursing, health care, education and business.
Page last updated 4:55 PM, September 19, 2018