Alison Goate and Jeanne Nerbonne named AAAS fellows

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From the WUSTL Newsroom

Seven Washington University in St. Louis faculty members have been named fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society.

The newest fellows from WUSTL are: Michael Brent, PhD; Raj Jain, PhD; and Arye Nehorai, PhD; and School of Medicine faculty members Alison Goate, DPhil; Jeanne M. Nerbonne, PhD; D.C. Rao, PhD; and Barry Sleckman, MD, PhD. Members are given the rank of fellow, the highest honor awarded by AAAS, by their peers in recognition of scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

The WUSTL faculty members are among 702 new fellows acknowledged in the Nov. 30 issue of Science magazine. The 2012 AAAS fellows also will be honored at a Feb. 16 ceremony at the organization’s annual meeting in Boston.

Alison Goate

The Samuel & Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Genetics in Psychiatry and director of the Hope Center for Neurological Disorders at the School of Medicine, Goate was praised by her colleagues for her work in the genetics of neuropsychiatric disease, particularly Alzheimer’s disease.

She rose to international prominence while working in London at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, when she was the principal investigator on two major studies that uncovered the first genetic mutations that could be linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her work studying families with early-onset Alzheimer’s revealed that the APP (amyloid precursor protein) gene can, with a very minor mutation, change the way the brain processes amyloid-beta, the substance that builds up in the plaques that clog the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Since arriving at Washington University 20 years ago, her lab has continued to be a leader in genetic studies of neurodegenerative disease. Her lab was part of the team that first identified mutations in the tau protein in frontotemporal dementia and in the TDP43 protein in Lou Gehrig’s disease.

More recently, Goate’s laboratory has been using genome-wide association studies and genomic sequencing strategies to identify both rare and common gene variants that predispose patients to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other neuropsychiatric disorders. She has focused, in particular, on the use of markers in the cerebrospinal fluid that help reveal how much amyloid beta has built up in the brain, as well as another protein marker of Alzheimer’s disease called tau.

Although her early studies focused on early-onset Alzheimer’s, another project in Goate’s laboratory involves the screening of more than 450 families affected by the more common, late-onset form of the disease, looking for genes that contribute to dementia. That work has shown that at least 5 percent of the families in the study have disease that is caused by mutations in genes that previously were associated with early-onset disease.

Just recently, Goate was part of a team that reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that rare variants within the TREM2 gene make one’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease two to three times more likely.

Goate also studies genetic risk for substance dependence. Her lab has been instrumental in identifying both common and rare variation in neuronal nicotinic receptor genes that influence smoking and alcohol dependence.

Jeanne M. Nerbonne

The School of Medicine’s Alumni Endowed Professor of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology, Nerbonne was lauded by her colleagues for her contributions to research and training in the molecular and cell biology of ion channels that control excitability in the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Her research is focused on understanding the regulation of electrical activity of heart and nerve cells. Specifically, Nerbonne’s lab studies ion channels, structures that control the passage of electrically charged ions into and out of cells. These channels are vital to maintaining proper heart rhythm and rapid communication between nerve cells. Nerbonne is recognized for pioneering efforts to identify the types of ion channels, particularly voltage-gated ion channels, expressed in different cells and tissues and for determining the molecular correlates of these channels and the mechanisms that control channel expression, distribution and functioning in cardiac and neuronal cells.

Flawed ion channels play roles in conditions as diverse as cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, migraines, diabetes and abnormal heart rhythms. To aid in the development of new treatments for such diseases, Nerbonne co-directs the Center for the Investigation of Membrane Excitability Diseases, which is a part of the School of Medicine’s BioMed 21 initiative.

Nerbonne also leads the Translational Cardiovascular Biobank and Repository (TCBR), funded in part by the Children’s Discovery Institute and the Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS). The TCBR serves as a resource for investigators interested in studying heart and vascular conditions in adults and children.

Nerbonne also is recognized for her contributions to training predoctoral and postdoctoral fellows. She has been the director of the Cardiovascular Biology Training Program, supported by a training grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Nerbonne earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Framingham State College and a doctorate in physical organic chemistry from Georgetown University. She joined Washington University School of Medicine as an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology. She became a full professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Pharmacology in 1997, and in 2002, she was named the Alumni Endowed Professor. She also has affiliations with the departments of Internal Medicine and Biomedical Engineering.

Nerbonne is the author of numerous scientific publications. She serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of General Physiology, Circulation Research and the Journal of Molecular and Cellular Cardiology, and is an associate editor of The Journal of Neuroscience.

For more from the WUSTL Newsroom, click here.

Posted on December 5, 2012
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