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Drs. Ben-Yakar and Pierce-Shimomura win NIH Grant to study Neurodegeneration

AUSTIN, TEXAS—September 23, 2011

-By Melissa Mixon

Drs. Adela Ben-Yakar (Mechanical Engineering) and Jon Pierce-Shimomura (Neurobiology) have received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study neurodegeneration in C.elegans (a small worm). The purpose of their work is to develop a system to automate drug testing and substantially shorten the time needed to perform animal drug testing. They will begin by working on drugs for Alzheimer's, a neurodegenerative illness with no current cure.

Drs. Adela Ben-Yakar (Mechanical Engineering) and Jon Pierce-Shimomura (Neurobiology) have received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study neurodegeneration in C.elegans (a small worm). The purpose of their work is to develop a system to automate drug testing and substantially shorten the time needed to perform animal drug testing. They will begin by working on drugs for Alzheimer's, a neurodegenerative illness with no current cure.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has granted researchers, Dr. Adela Ben-Yakar and Dr. Jon Pierce-Shimomura a highly competitive research grant to develop technology that significantly reduces the time and costs required to test drugs for neurodegenerative disease.

The grants are part of a $143.8 million funding initiative provided by NIH this year to 79 researchers around the nation. The grants are awarded under three innovative research programs supported by the NIH Common Fund: the NIH Director's Pioneer, New Innovator and Transformative Research Projects Awards.

"The grants are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions," said James M. Anderson, director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, who guides the Common Fund's High-Risk Research program.

Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Adela Ben-Yakar and College of Natural Sciences Assistant Professor Jon Pierce-Shimomura were selected to receive an approximately $3 million Transformative Research Project grant for their research to prevent degeneration of the nervous system. Degeneration, which occurs through natural aging and diseases like Alzheimer's, has become a pervasive and growing problem in the last century due to new treatments that extend lifespan but cannot prevent neurological decline.

Aging and Neurodegeneration

"We can treat cancer when we diagnose it on time and maybe find solutions for heart problems, but when it comes to the brain we don't have many effective solutions," said Dr. Ben-Yakar, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering. "[Neurodegeneration] is a big problem for all of humanity. As an engineer, it excites me to find new ways of doing things, but the end result is what really motivates me and my colleague."

Reducing Drug-Testing Time

A huge barrier to preventing or treating diseases like Alzheimer's disease is the amount of time it takes to identify drugs that work effectively. Typically, drugs are tested on mice — a process that is expensive and requires one to two years for mice to age while testing just a few dozen drugs at a time. With the grant, Ben-Yakar and Pierce-Shimomura will develop an automated system that rapidly reduces this time and cost. Instead of mice, the researchers will use a short-lived, 1 mm-long worm, known as C. elegans, to test the effectiveness of millions of drugs. The researchers will also develop novel optical techniques and microfluidic devices that are capable of determining — within a matter of seconds — which drugs are effective.

The Process

"This award will enable our ambitious project to use advanced engineering techniques to analyze how millions of drugs may prevent neurons from dying in neurodegenerative disease," said Pierce-Shimomura, an assistant professor in the Section of Neurobiology "A drug screen of this size has never been attempted."


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