Scientists Receive $3.5 Million for Brain Research from DSF Charitable Foundation

Issue Date: 
March 3, 2014

The University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute has received $3.5 million from the DSF Charitable Foundation and will use the funds to discover drug treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and to explore an imaging technology for traumatic brain injury, particularly in wounded veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

The Pittsburgh-based DSF Charitable Foundation also made a separate gift of $100,000 to the Mark A. Nordenberg Scholarship Fund.

“We wanted to contribute to the fund in recognition of Chancellor Nordenberg’s exceptional stewardship of the University,” said David Scaife, foundation chair. “As evidenced by Pitt’s remarkable progress as an academic institution over the course of his tenure, Mark’s leadership has been nothing less than transformative. Witnessing that has been exhilarating.”

PittPeter L. Strick announced in January the creation of its Brain Institute, which is intended to provide a special environment to promote innovation and discovery. Its founding scientific director is Peter L. Strick, Distinguished Professor and chair, Department of Neurobiology, and a leading expert on the neural basis of movement and cognition. The institute will have five centers, including a NeuroDiscovery Center, which is to function like a Bell Labs for neuroscience to support high-risk/high-reward neuroscience research.

Of the total DSF Charitable Foundation gift, $1.75 million will go to the Brain Institute’s NeuroDiscovery Center, including $1 million to hunt for new drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS and Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and $750,000 will be used to conduct basic and translational research. Specifically, researchers will be trying to find drugs that affect the function of mitochondria, the so-called powerhouses of cells.

“Research conducted here and elsewhere has shown us that mitochondria are key regulators of programmed cell death, which is a critical factor in neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS,” said Robert Friedlander, professor and chair, Department of Neurological Surgery. “If we can protect mitochondria, we might be able to delay symptom progression and extend life just as we have done in animal models of ALS and Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.”

Friedlander and J. Timothy Greenamyre, professor in the Department of Neurology and director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, will serve as principal investigators on the project.

Strick noted the importance of basic and translational research in such endeavors.

“Often, it is an investigator with the boldest idea who holds the key to the next great discovery,” Strick said. “DSF Charitable Foundation’s generosity will make it possible for [Brain Institute] researchers to freely explore challenging scientific questions that can lead to important discoveries and lay the foundation for the therapeutic advances of the future.”

The Brain Institute is using Bell Laboratories as a model, Strick said, because it provided a unique research environment in which a diverse group of scientists were brought together and given the resources to “think outside the box.”

Bell Laboratories led the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, several new computer languages, and work completed there has led to seven Nobel Prizes.

“Many of the world’s renowned neuroscientists are here at Pitt, and the Brain Institute will foster their ability to collaborate with experts across disciplines, including computer science, mathematics and bioengineering as well as medicine and neurobiology,” Strick said. “This wealth of knowledge and experience presents a rare opportunity to conduct powerful, influential science.”

The remaining $1.8 million over three years from DSF Charitable Foundation will support the study of an innovative brain imaging technology called high-definition fiber tracking for veterans of the U.S. military who have sustained traumatic brain injuries.

The project will be led by Walter Schneider, a professor of psychology, neurological surgery, and radiology, and a senior scientist in Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, and David Okonkwo, a professor of neurological surgery and director of the Brain Trauma Program. Researchers hope the advanced imaging technique can reveal damage to the fiber tracts, or “cables,” of the brain, just as X-rays indicate broken bones.

“Conventional imaging techniques are not able to show these injuries, so it’s harder to diagnose, treat, or monitor them,” Okonkwo said. The high-definition fiber tracking “has the potential to identify [traumatic brain injury] quickly and accurately, which could in turn influence therapy and recovery.”