U. neuroscientists get $5.7M in grants

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University of Utah neuroscientists have won $5.7 million in grants to study neurodegenerative diseases and disorders.

Researchers with the Clinical Neurosciences Center who got funds include the following:

* Stefan Pulst, professor and chairman of neurology in the School of Medicine, was awarded $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue research on degenerative ataxias and the role of ion channels and Parkinson's disease-related proteins in neurodegenerative disease.

Through prior research on families with neurodegenerative diseases, Pulst discovered a gene that causes nerve cells (neurons) to degenerate in the cerebellum, causing patients to lose coordination and develop features of Parkinson's disease. The new grant will enable Pulst to search for new therapies by building on his findings regarding mutations in ion channels. Ions are electrically charged atoms that flow through special channels to establish communication between cells.

* Gordon Smith and J. Robinson Singleton, associate professors of neurology, received a $588,000 grant from the American Diabetes Association and a $1.9 million NIH grant to study neuropathy - nerve damage caused by diabetes and obesity.

Neuropathy is a progressive injury to the longest nerves of the body, typically affecting sensation in the toes, then progressing slowly up the leg, causing pain, numbness and weakness. The most common cause is diabetes, but Singleton and Smith have found such injuries may occur with mild elevations of blood sugar, even before diabetes is present.

Their research compares the abilities of nerves to regenerate among three groups of patients - those with normal metabolism, those with metabolic syndrome and those with diabetes - and examines whether intensive diet and exercise can improve nerve regeneration in each group.

* L. Eric Huang, an associate professor of neurosurgery who received $1.5 million from the National Cancer Institute, will investigate regulation of oxygen equilibrium to see if it plays a role in tumor development and progression. Lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, has been associated with increased genetic instability in cancers, and Huang's recent research has shown that the body's response to hypoxia inhibits genes that help in DNA repair.