LC professor receives esteemed research grant

Photo Courtesy of Lewis & Clark

Tamily Weissman, associate professor of biology at Lewis & Clark, recently received a grant for her work studying Parkinson’s disease. The $30,000 grant from the Collins Medical Trust will allow Weissman to conduct in-depth research on the mechanisms that cause the disease.

Weissman’s past work has mainly focused on how brains develop at very early stages in an organism’s life. Though she is continuing that research, she is now asking questions about how brains behave at the end of life. As a neurobiologist, Weissman is interested in neurons, the cells that play a central role in the brain and nervous system, and how malfunctions within neurons can cause neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

“All of these diseases share this one unifying feature with their mechanism and that is that inside the (cell), a certain protein clumps up abnormally into these structures called aggregates,” Weissman said.

In the case of Parkinson’s disease, Weissman’s lab is focusing on a specific aggregating protein called Alpha-synuclein. Weissman believes that the research being done in her lab could identify why these proteins clump up, which could lead to more targeted treatments for Parkinson’s disease. Current treatments focus primarily on treating its symptoms, but this research could contribute to new treatments that would stop the proteins from aggregating together.

In order to study these proteins within the neurons of a living organism, Weissman studies a small species of fish known as zebrafish, which are distinctive for their pattern of horizontal stripes.

“(Zebrafish are) transparent, which means you can just put the fish under the microscope and look directly without hurting the fish,” Weissman said.

When they alter the proteins in the fish, they can observe changes in patterns of aggregation within their cells from moment to moment. While using zebrafish in her research, Weissman follows strict standards of care for their quality of life. These standards include careful monitoring of temperature in the tanks, making sure the fish are well fed and limiting how frequently they are disturbed for use in research.

“Anytime we use them for our experiments, we do so in the most humane way possible,” Weissman said. “It’s very important to me and to us as a lab that wework really carefully with the fish.”

The grant money from the Collins Medical Trust will allow Weissman’s lab to use microbiology techniques to slightly alter the DNA that codes for relevant proteins. Seeing how these alterations can be observed in the zebrafish can help them to understand why the proteins behave the way they do in neurons. Their research is being done in close collaboration with the Unni Lab at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), which maintains direct communication with Weissman’s lab, while serving in a mentorship role. This involves frequent meetings and sharing of data between the two.

This collaboration is an opportunity for LC students who are a part of Weissman’s team to learn more about research being done at OHSU as well as scientific research processes. Weissman emphasizes the large role that LC undergraduate students play in her lab.

“All of the work is all done by undergrads,” Weissman said. “I don’t have a grad student or a postdoc, like our competing labs do at other universities. Undergrads are the ones who get to learn how to master these techniques.”

Weissman estimates that the research project will take about two years. She is excited to take her research in this new direction, where it has the potential to make an important difference in the way that Parkinson’s disease is understood.

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