University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Texas collaboration started with lunch in Wisconsin

Adela Ben-Yakar, an engineering professor, and Jon Pierce-Shimomura, a neurobiology professor, have teamed up develop technology to test drugs for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Adela Ben-Yakar, an engineering professor, and Jon Pierce-Shimomura, a neurobiology professor, have teamed up to develop technology to test drugs for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Scientific collaborations across disciplines can be great when they happen.

Researchers bring different skills, expertise and perspectives that can illuminate hard problems.

But just bringing different disciplines together can be a hard problem in itself, despite work being done by universities to break down the siloes that contain them.

So we wondered how Adela Ben-Yakar, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Jon Pierce-Shimomura, an assistant professor in the Section of Neurobiology, came to collaborate.

They have received a $3 million grant from National Institutes of Health to develop technology that could drastically cut the time and cost to test drugs for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

What Ben-Yakar brings to this collaboration is expertise in designing tools for delicate work at the cellular level. What Pierce-Shimomura brings is expertise in developing a special breed of C. elegans worm on which to use the tools.

All Ben-Yakar and Pierce-Shimomura had to do is attend a conference for researchers who work with C. elegans held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008. It helped that they happened to sit at the same table for a lunch.

That fall Pierce-Shimomura would be a new faculty member at The University of Texas at Austin.

“I was just about to move to UT and was excited to learn that she was already here,” Pierce-Shimomura said. “I had experiments in the back of my mind that would clearly benefit from her expertise in microfluidics, lasers and optics.

“Likewise, I think she was happy to have us move to UT as the first lab with extensive experience in C. elegans neuroscience and molecular biology.”

Pierce-Shimomura’s arrival in Austin was indeed timely for Ben-Yakar and her lab.

“Before arrival of Jon, my group had developed several novel techniques for studying C. elegans, including precise laser surgery and microfluidic trapping methods for studying nerve regeneration,” Ben-Yakar said. “It was clear to both of us that together we can create a powerful synergy for revealing new insights in neurodegenerative diseases.”

But even after they realized that they could work together, there was more work to do before they could.

Pierce-Shimomura’s lab had developed a worm that develops Alzheimer’s disease. Just as in humans, a subset of the worm’s brain degenerates in the worm’s “middle age,” when its about five-days-old. The dying neurons can be seen through the worm’s transparent body.

“When Jon showed me his new Alzheimer’s model last year, I kept thinking what kind of new tools I need to develop to take advantage of this important disease model for rapid screening of drugs,” Ben-Yakar said.

Ben-Yakar went to her lab and soon after she came up with new ideas for ultrafast optical and microfluidic methods.

“This new tool box, combining new optical, microfluidics, and genetic methods, could only be invented by the combined expertise of our team,” Ben-Yakar said. “It has the potential to be very powerful in enabling new paradigms for research and discovery.”

What they plan to do with Ben-Yakar’s tools and Pierce-Shimomura’s worms is to search for new drugs that may delay or prevent neurodegeneration and aging in humans.

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