MCB faculty Vlad Denic has been chosen to receive funding for a joint project with HMS professor Wade Harper from a strategic research alliance between the pharmaceutical company Astellas and Harvard. Established earlier this year, the research alliance is providing multi-year funding to Harvard projects with potential to lead to innovative therapeutic approaches. Denic and Harper’s project will receive up to 1.5 million dollars in funding across three years of research.
Denic and Harper’s project fits into one of the “challenge” areas issued by Astellas. The company invited Harvard professors to propose projects investigating autophagy, the process of breaking down and recycling old cell parts, and its role in cell homeostasis. Denic, Harper, and their labs will study how autophagy plays out in neurons.
“Support from the Harvard-Astellas research alliance gives us a wonderful opportunity to test an emerging mechanistic paradigm in autophagy using a neuronal in vitro system that combines experimental reductionism with potential to uncover new therapeutic approaches for staving off neurodegeneration,” Denic says.
As long-lived cells, neurons especially need to prevent damaged organelles from gumming up the works. Autophagy is one of neurons’ main tools for doing so, but biologists aren’t sure whether autophagy occurs at a constant, steady pace, or whether it occurs in quicker bursts when needed.
“Basal autophagy is thought to protect neurons from premature degeneration by slow-and-steady recycling of bulk cytoplasmic material,” Denic explains. “While such a ‘better safe than sorry’ mechanism is possible in principle, the proposed work will test an alternative – ‘destruction on demand”- hypothesis, which predicts that ‘basal’ autophagy is the sum product of many specific but rare damage events that are recognized by a class of proteins known as autophagy receptors.”
“I can’t help but think that my growing personal interest in studying the process of autophagy in neurons has been influenced by a species of intellectual osmosis from my neurobiology colleagues,” he adds. “Maybe one day this diehard yeast cell biologist will even be able to say without irony ‘the awesome power of neurons.’”
Denic says that he is grateful to the research alliance and the Harvard Office of Technology Development for making this scientific inquiry possible. “This proposed work would also not be possible without the generous exchange of ideas and expertise with Wade Harper’s lab at HMS over the years, as well as Harvard OTD’s commitment to making the Cam-Bo science ecosystem a fertile ground for academic-industry collaborations.”
Congratulations to Professor Denic and Professor Harper!