Center of Emphasis in Neurosciences Research Recognized at International Meeting

While earning her doctorate, Ruth Perez, Ph.D., associate professor in the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) El Paso Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) and Center of Emphasis (COE) in Neurosciences, studied normal brain development. But what really intrigued her was neurodegeneration – the progressive damage of brain cells that leads to impaired memory and movement. Such damage causes Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and related disorders. “Aging is the main, major risk factor for these diseases,” said Dr. Perez. As baby boomers began reaching a critical age, Dr. Perez’s interest grew even more. “Unlike cells in the rest of the body, brain and spinal cord cells have less ability to repair or regenerate,” she said.

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, as many as one million individuals in the U.S. have the disease, which in later stages is marked by tremors, rigidity, and impaired balance. Early symptoms include constipation and impaired sense of smell. Perez and her team are working to identify treatments, especially for Parkinson’s and Multiple Systemic Atrophy (MSA) – a rapidly progressing disorder with overlapping symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. “At this point, we may not be able to reverse the effects of the diseases, but we can try to keep patients’ symptoms from worsening.” One of the drugs they study is FTY720, also called Fingolimod or Gilenya. The drug, which is FDA approved for multiple sclerosis, could be fast tracked for other disorders.

Three Perez lab members recently received awards for their research at international meetings. Ismael Segura, a third year Ph.D. student in pharmacology and neurosciences at the TTUHSC Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) received the “Best Poster – Graduate Student Research” at the Great Lakes Glia Conference in Traverse City, Mich. His paper, “FTY720 (Gilenya) Stimulates Oligodendroglial BDNF and NGF Expression by Increasing Histone Acetylation” shows evidence that the drug can improve the health of myelinating glial cells, which are particularly damaged in MSA.

Javier Vargas-Medrano, Ph.D., and Guadalupe Vidal-Martínez, Ph.D., both postdoctoral research associates in the TTUHSC El Paso GSBS and COE in Neurosciences won travel awards to attend the Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease Meeting at the VanAndel Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. Their awards were made possible by a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (1R13NS095593-01). Vargas presented his work on “Neuroprotection of Dopaminergic Neuronal Cells by FTY720 (Fingolimod, Gilenya) and Novel FTY720-based Compounds”. Vidal’s poster was entitled “Restorative Effects of FTY720 (Gilenya) on Gastrointestinal Absorption and Motility in Transgenic A53T α-Synuclein Mice.” All three posters demonstrate exciting pre-clinical data showing FTY720’s potential for treating Parkinson’s disease and MSA.

“These awards highlight the innovative and important work being conducted by Perez and her team, as they work towards better understanding the causes of Parkinson’s disease and MSA, and moving to possible cures for these debilitating illnesses,” said Michael Escamilla, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the TTUHSC El Paso COE in Neurosciences. “These awards let the world know about the great work being done by researchers here in the Center of Emphasis in Neurosciences.”