Southern Research announced that Rita Cowell, Ph.D., has joined the Birmingham-based organization as Chair of the Neuroscience Department as it expands research and drug discovery efforts focusing on diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Cowell, whose work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Michael J. Fox Foundation, is examining the mechanistic underpinnings of why people develop neurodegenerative diseases. These devastating conditions today have few effective treatments and no cures.
“Some of these disorders actually converge on similar pathways in the brain. Even though they look different on the outside, if you look at one region of the brain, the process at the cell level is actually very similar,” Cowell said.
“The idea is that if we could understand what that process is, we could use one drug to target one set of symptoms that is common to these diseases,” she added.
Mark Suto, Ph.D., vice president of Southern Research’s Drug Discovery division, said Cowell’s work on neurodegenerative diseases, particularly Parkinson’s, provides a solid foundation to build on in the Neuroscience Department.
“Rita’s extensive understanding of these debilitating neurological disorders will be instrumental in advancing our goal of discovering novel treatments for patients who desperately need help,” Suto said.
“We believe that she is the ideal person to direct our Neuroscience Department as we strategically expand it over time into new areas of investigation that align with our drug discovery mission,” he added.
The NIH says neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are the most common types in the U.S., with Alzheimer’s affecting more than 5 million people while Parkinson’s affects at least 500,000, according to the NIH.
These diseases occur when nerve cells in the brain lose function and eventually die. Other disorders in this group include Huntington’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s). In addition, schizophrenia is a disorder with some similar characteristics that have been examined in Cowell-led targeted investigations.
Cowell’s research has focused on how cellular pathways in the brain are disrupted in these diseases.
“All these diseases have very characteristic symptoms. Someone will go into a clinic and they have a memory problem or they have a problem with uncontrolled movements,” she said. “What distinguishes these diseases and their symptoms from each other is the cell types in the brain that are dying.”
In Parkison’s, for instance, the neurons in the brain producing dopamine are dying. In Alzheimer’s, the neurons producing acetylcholine, another neurotransmitter that sends signals to other cells, are dying.
“What we’re trying to do is to use our understanding of the basic biology of how neurons work to understand how they’re aging and how they’re dying in people that have these disorders,” Cowell said.
Cowell’s work on Parkinson’s has been funded through a five-year grant from the NIH and support from the foundation of Michael J. Fox, the actor fighting the disease. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has funded her work on Huntington’s.
INVESTIGATING A TARGET
Cowell joins Southern Research after 10 years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she last served as associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology. She also served as co-director of the Neuroscience Graduate Theme for the program in Biomedical Services at UAB and as associate director for communications and outreach for the Civitan International Research Center.
Southern Research and UAB are close collaborators and joined together to form the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, which is currently funding three neuroscience projects.
Cowell said Southern Research’s extensive drug discovery capabilities allow her to pursue her ultimate goal of developing a small-molecule drug that could prove useful against a number of neurological diseases.
Her laboratory has identified a target that could play a role in the development of these disorders – a protein by the name of PGC-1 alpha that could be solid target for a new treatment.
Cowell holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Michigan.
Her longstanding interest in neurodegenerative disorders comes with a personal connection.
“My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. I think everyone has links to some of these neurodegenerative diseases,” she said.