Two UC San Francisco scientists are among six groups of researchers from leading academic institutions who have been awarded funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in the field of neuroscience. UCSF honorees Erik Ullian, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Ophthalmology, and David Rowitch, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Pediatrics, will receive $1 million in funding. The Allen Distinguished Investigator (ADI) grants fund a total of $7.5 million over three years to solve one of the most challenging roadblocks in neuroscience: growing mature human brain cells in the laboratory.
“I was happily surprised by the announcement,” Ullian said. “The great thing about this funding is that it will allow us to try to move our research forward in a new and high risk/high reward direction.”
David Rowitch, MD, PhD
Erik Ullian, PhD
The six projects chosen to receive ADI grants in the field of neuronal maturation all tackle one or more of these challenges in bold new ways, including using innovative technologies and novel points of view.
Ullian and Rowitch will focus on astrocytes, the most abundant cell type in the human brain, providing signals that are essential for all aspects of neuronal function and survival. But just as no two neurons are the same, astrocytes are incredibly diverse and specialized. Different types of astrocytes can provide different kinds of support and signals to the neurons they surround.
“The research is intended to show how neurological function is regulated at the local level and has implications for our understanding of neurological and psychiatric disorders,” said Rowitch. "Specifically, we will test how specialized astrocytes of the brain could help support the survival and function of dopanergic neurons, which are the targets of injury in Parkinsons Disease."
Ullian and Rowitch's previous work in mouse models indicates that generating astrocytes that are matched to their partner neurons will be essential to studying and understanding human neuronal function in both health and disease.
“The idea we are testing is speculative and the type of project that would not be funded by the National Institutes of Health," Rowitch said. "The Allen Family Foundation provides critical seed funding for us to develop our novel hypothesis to the next level.”
Studying human brain cells is one of the most promising ways to better understand the function of the healthy brain as well as provide insight into the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It typically takes more than a year to develop cells that come close to resembling fully mature neurons, and even then, yield is often low and full maturity has not been reached.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation seeks to open new frontiers in science, and the ADI program supports early-stage research with the potential to re-invent entire fields. Successful neuronal maturation would have widespread impact on the field of neuroscience, including changing how researchers study the healthy brain as well as how they seek treatments for diseases like autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Allen Distinguished Investigators are passionate thought leaders, explorers, and innovators who seek world-changing breakthroughs. With grants between $1 million and $1.5 million each, the Foundation provides these scientists with enough funds to produce momentum in their respective fields. Besides UCSFS, other leading institutions represented include UCLA, MIT, Harvard University, and the University of Washington.
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