L&S Supports Research on Rare Genetic Disorder
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Assistant Professor of Chemistry Elizabeth Neumann will use the funds to further research on Rett syndrome, a rare, genetic neurological disorder with no known cure that adversely affects brain development.

A chemist studying the cellular and molecular architecture underlying neurological diseases recently received an Incentives for Large Grant Award from the College of Letters and Science at UC Davis. 

The Incentives for Large Grant Awards program provides faculty with up to $80,000 in support over two years to pursue large grants of over $1 million.  

Elizabeth Neumann, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Aijun Wang, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, will use the funds to further their research on Rett syndrome, a rare, genetic neurological disorder with no known cure that adversely affects brain development. Hallmarks of the disease include a progressive decline in motor skills and language. According to the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, the disease affects 1 in 10,000 females. It is less common in males. 

“I was very excited to receive this grant, because it will enable us to study a very important disease, Rett Syndrome, as well as get the preliminary data necessary for one of the larger grants,” said Neumann. “Usually, you have to scrape resources together to get a small grant to then leverage that data for one of these larger grants. It's awesome to have the opportunity to work on this project with resources going in.” 

The Incentives for Large Grant Awards program aims to ease that difficulty by providing faculty members with resources to conduct the preliminary work necessary for large grant proposals. 

Investigating cellular neighborhoods

To gain further insight into Rett Syndrome, Neumann will focus her attention on brain cells called astrocytes, which regulate blood flow and provide energy to neurons, among other functions. 

“While astrocytes are clearly integral to neurological function, they have been considered largely house-keeping and less functionally interesting than their neuron counterparts,” Neumann said. “As a result, astrocytes have been chronically understudied, despite growing evidence that they may play a more dynamic role and are notably dysregulated within different neurological diseases.” 

Astrocytes in those with Rett syndrome display poorer functioning than their healthy counterparts, leading researchers to believe the cell type could be a potential therapeutic target. 

“While neurons are generally the key players in neurological functions, recent literature has demonstrated that astrocytes may participate in signaling and communication beyond their passive, supporting roles,” Neumann said. “Exploring the molecular and cellular diversity of astrocytes in their native environment will help us better understand Rett syndrome.” 

Using transgenic mice that display brain pathologies associated with Rett syndrome, Neumann and colleagues will employ various imaging methods, including mass spectrometry and multiplexed immunofluorescence, to understand how astrocytes, in both healthy and diseased brains, interact with other cell types and across different cellular neighborhoods. 

“We hypothesize that astrocytes in those with Rett syndrome will have unique cellular microenvironments and pathogenic states that can be utilized when designing next generation therapeutics,” Neumann said. 

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