Pictured: Assistant Professor Jerry Zhao, Ph.D.
A research team led by Yingtao “Jerry” Zhao, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM), has secured a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The $428,400 grant will support research that could improve understanding of brain cell function and deliver new treatments for some of the most pressing neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and autism spectrum disorder.
Brain diseases and disorders affect one in six people worldwide. Some of these conditions have been linked to the sugar molecule heparan sulfate, which covers the surface of all cells in the human body and is believed to help regulate cell-to-cell interactions (cell signaling). While deficient heparan sulfate levels have been associated with autism spectrum disorder, overaccumulation has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. However, little is known about how, exactly, heparan sulfate helps to regulate brain function, and treatments are limited.
Now, for the first time, Zhao and his team will use a novel mouse model to study genetics, molecular biology, and other biomedical factors that could impact the role of heparan sulfate in the brains of adult mammals. They hypothesize that proper heparan sulfate function in key brain cells (astrocytes) regulates behavior and gene expression, with heparan sulfate abnormalities leading to neurological disease. Their findings may have important clinical implications in humans.
“Our research is significant because it will fundamentally advance understanding of the role that heparan sulfate plays in the brain’s signaling pathways. We aim to offer a strong scientific basis to develop new therapies for patients with neurological diseases caused by heparan sulfate irregularities,” says Zhao.
The researchers will analyze heparan sulfate activity in the brain cells of mice affected by various genetic and biomedical conditions. Among others, conditions will include gene mutations associated with sugar molecule irregularities, artificially introduced nucleic acids (DNA or RNA), and reduced or elevated gene expression. Their findings could lead to the development of new heparan sulfate-based drugs for various brain conditions.
The project will also provide exceptional research opportunities for New York Tech’s medical and undergraduate students, with two NYITCOM students and two undergraduates (selected via the university’s Advanced Research Core program) expected to assist the team each year. The experience will help prepare students for a wide range of research career opportunities as they will be exposed to various biomedical research areas, including genetics and molecular biology, and research practices like identifying knowledge gaps in scientific literature and forming and testing hypotheses.
Other NYITCOM researchers involved include Weikang Cai, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences; Yuan Huang, Ph.D., senior research associate; and Sohyun Moon, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15NS130456. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.