Public Release:  NIH awards $7.39 million to Burnham neurobiologists

Funding will support critical understanding of brain development and demyelinating diseases

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

(La Jolla, CA, April 23, 2007) -- A team of researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research ("Burnham") has been awarded $7.39 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. The funding will support a five-year, multi-project study entitled "Neuron-Glia Communication in Development."

Glial cells are at the center of most functions of the nervous system. They outnumber neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and spinal cord by a factor of 10:1 and provide physical and nutritional support for neurons. They are also believed to guide the migration of neurons during development and to regulate the chemical environment surrounding synapses in the adult brain. And yet, little is known about the molecular mechanisms by which glial cells communicate with neurons and how the failure of such communication leads to neurological diseases. New studies underway at Burnham are addressing this information gap.

"The study of neuron-glia communication is a rapidly emerging field in basic neurobiology. It also has strong relevance to demyelinating diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and neuropathies," said project director Yu Yamaguchi, M.D., Ph.D. Myelin is the protective sheath coating nerve fibers, and the damage or loss of myelin (demyelination) severely impairs the ability of nerve fibers to conduct electrical signals. Multiple sclerosis is the most well known of the so-called demyelinating diseases. "With this funding, we expect to resolve how glial cells function in the normal brain. But also, we hope to provide new insights into the mechanisms of demyelinating diseases," said Yamaguchi.

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In this NIH-funded project, Dr. Yamaguchi, who is a Professor in Burnham's Glycobiology Program, leads a team including four other faculty members at the Institute: Professor William Stallcup, Ph.D., Professor Elena Pasquale, Ph.D., Professor Barbara Ranscht, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Dongxian Zhang, Ph.D. This is a mature collaboration: the members of this team have worked together for more than 10 years as a highly interactive group at Burnham. Their work has contributed key findings about the formation of nerve cell circuitry, synaptic functions, proliferation and migration of nerve cells, helping to advance medical researchers' understanding of normal brain development as well as cancer and degenerative diseases of the brain.

About Burnham Institute for Medical Research:

Burnham Institute for Medical Research conducts world-class collaborative research dedicated to finding cures for human disease, improving quality of life, and thus creating a legacy for its employees, partners, donors, and community. The La Jolla, California campus was established as a nonprofit, public benefit corporation in 1976 and is now home to three major centers: a National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center, the Del E. Webb Center for Neurosciences and Aging, and the Infectious and Inflammatory Disease Center. Burnham today employs over 750 people and ranks consistently among the world's top 20 research institutes. In 2006, Burnham established a presence at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led by Dr. Erkki Ruoslahti, Distinguished Professor. Burnham is also establishing a campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida that will focus on diabetes and obesity research and will expand the Institute's drug discovery capabilities. For additional information about Burnham and to learn about ways to support its research, visit www.burnham.org.

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