A SRU biology professor and University of Pittsburgh collaborators received a $50, 000 three-year research grant from the National Institute of Health to better understand the cause of health problems including Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis.
When Dr. Stacy Hrizo, a SRU biology professor, found out that her mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia, she became interested in neurodegenerative research. According to the Institute for Dementia Research and Prevention, at least 5 million people in the U.S. have age-related dementias.
After Hrizo applied, she found Dr. Michael Palladino, a University of Pittsburgh pharmacology and chemical biology professor who accepted her as a post-doctoral researcher and developed this project, formally called, “Protein Quality Control Mechanisms of Novel Soluble Substrates,” with her. Hrizo and Palladino are specifically studying how sugar metabolism causes neurodegeneration, a disease that links to disorders like dementia.
“There’s still a lot that we don’t understand about the brain and about how it functions,” Hrizo said. “But the majority of the drugs that the industry uses target the process of the brain.”
Hrizo and researchers are studying the factors that affect this glycolytic disorder with fruit flies, a genetic model system called drosophila melanogaster, so they can study the flies from birth to death within about two months. (Dementia occurs at later stages from birth).
“When you are studying mutations in a mouse or a human, it takes years before you see anything happening in the brain,” Hrizo said.
Fruit flies are commonly used for biology research in genetics.
Dr. Andrew VanDemark, an assistant structural biology professor at Pitt, is another collaborator. He is creating crystals of the proteins to help the researchers study the structure changes in the mutations. Doctors have not found any certain treatment for neurodegenerative disorders.
“We don’t have very effective medicines against it,” Hrizo said. “But we do know that there are certain factors that affect your risk or probability of developing a neurodegenerative disorder where your brain cells die and get these symptoms.”
Some of these factors include diet and exercise. Doctors recommend dementia patients to maintain a healthy diet and exercise enough to slow the process of the symptoms.
Hrizo has been awarded $9, 718 for the first year and will receive a total of $48,406 by the last year. She is working on most of her study in the Pitt’s School of Medicine lab over the summer, and some is conducted at SRU. Hrizo’s goal is to screen 600 to 800 different genes within the next two years and then confirm their findings in the third year. Hrizo and collaborators’ project is a type of cell biology research which is under the same category as, Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, the 2012 Nobel Prize winners in chemistry. They won the $1 million prize for identifying a class of receptors in the brain and understanding how they work.
The National Institute of Health is funding the researchers to look at how cells are destroying enzymes that are functioning and folded properly in sugar metabolism. This disease, called TPI deficiency, starts to take a negative effect on the brain. Hrizo’s experiment is on fruit flies because she can control the lighting, temperature, how much and when to feed them in the lab. Palladino is putting the mutations in the fruit flies to compare how different mutations cause diseases. He will look at the progression of each disease in a population of genetically identical fruit flies which lasts in a course of about two months.
In 2001, Hrizo completed a Bachelor of Science in Molecular and Cellular Biology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.