Pitt Scientists Receive $3.5M for Brain Research from DSF Charitable Foundation

PITTSBURGH – With $1.75 million in support from the DSF Charitable Foundation, University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute (UPBI) researchers will begin to establish a NeuroDiscovery Center, akin to a Bell Labs for neuroscience, and hunt for new drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Thanks to another $1.8 million DSF gift, another team of neuroscientists and clinicians will explore the application of a new imaging technology to traumatic brain injury, particularly in wounded veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

University officials recently announced the inception of the Brain Institute, which will enable investigators to perform high-risk, high-impact neuroscience with the aim of transforming lives. Scientific director Peter Strick, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair, Department of Neurobiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, will use a $750,000 gift from the DSF Charitable Foundation to create the NeuroDiscovery Center’s pilot fund that will support especially innovative basic and translational research.

“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 UPBI researchers to freely explore challenging scientific questions that can lead to important discoveries and lay the foundation for the therapeutic advances of the future.”

He noted that Bell Laboratories provided a unique research environment in which a diverse group of scientists were brought together and given the resources to “think outside the box,” leading to landmark successes, including the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, several new computer languages and 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.”

Strick, who recently was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, holds the Endowed Chair in Systems Neuroscience, is co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition and the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a Senior Research Career Scientist at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

A three-year, $1 million gift from the DSF Charitable Foundation will fund another project in the Brain Institute’s NeuroDiscovery Center. Principal investigators Robert Friedlander, M.D., professor and chair, Department of Neurological Surgery, and J. Timothy Greenamyre, M.D., Ph.D., professor, Department of Neurology, and director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, will look for drugs that can 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,” Friedlander said. “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, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.”

The DSF Charitable Foundation also is providing $1.8 million over three years to support the study of an innovative brain imaging technology called high-definition fiber tracking (HDFT) for veterans of the U.S. military who have sustained traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

The HDFT project, led by Walter Schneider, Ph.D., professor of psychology, neurological surgery and radiology, and a senior scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, and David Okonkwo, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurological surgery and director of the Brain Trauma Program, aims to 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. “HDFT has the potential to identify TBI quickly and accurately, which could in turn influence therapy and recovery.”

In addition to HDFT scans, participants in the research project will receive a toolkit that includes material to carry out targeted therapies, mobile technology to support ongoing monitoring and other treatment aids.

The DSF Charitable Foundation also made a 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, chairman of the Foundation. “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.”

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