NIH grant to help UNC researchers explore microRNA as route to Alzheimer’s therapy

The National Institute on Aging awarded a $2.6-million, five-year grant to UNC’s Mohanish Deshmukh’s lab to explore miR-29, a key molecule that helps mature brain cells avoid death.

NIH grant to help UNC researchers explore microRNA as route to Alzheimer’s therapy click to enlarge Mohanish Deshmukh, PhD

Neurodegeneration is a problem that affects millions of people, and to understand it, the lab of Mohanish Deshmukh, PhD, professor of cell biology and physiology at the UNC School of Medicine, first sought to understand how healthy brains do such an amazing job at maintaining function throughout adulthood. His lab at the UNC Neuroscience Center discovered that a microRNA molecule called miR-29 was present at high levels in the adult brain. This same molecule has been found at reduced levels in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and Deshmukh’s lab discovered that miR-29 has the ability to keep neurons alive.

As a result of this and other work, Deshmukh’s team was awarded $2.6 million to further investigate miR-29’s role in neurodegeneration and evaluate its therapeutic potential through the use of Alzheimer’s mouse models.

“Everyone recognizes that the rate of Alzheimer’s disease is already high and is going to markedly increase as baby boomers continue to age and our overall population increases,” said Deshmukh. “It’s urgent we find therapies, and our ultimate hope is to find a cure.”

Deshmukh’s five-year grant is from the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Congress has made neurodegeneration research a priority and as a result has appropriated funds to the NIA. Earlier this year, Deshmukh’s lab, along with Dr. Todd Cohen’s lab in UNC’s department of neurology, received a $50,000 Emerging Challenges in Biomedical Research grant from the UNC School of Medicine.

deshmukh neurons
Neurons undergoing cell death (courtesy of the Deshmukh Lab)
“I believe this show of dedication from our school towards funding pilot projects on Alzheimer’s disease made our lab even more competitive for this NIA grant,” Deshmukh said. “This funding is crucial to making progress in biomedical research, particularly in a difficult and complex problem like neurodegeneration.”

MicroRNAs were discovered in the 1990s and weren’t understood to be a distinct group of molecules important for gene expression until the early 2000s. Scientists are just now parsing the details of how individual microRNAs are important for regulating gene expression. Early research points to microRNA’s role in a variety of health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, kidney disease, and inherited diseases.

While studying miR-29, Deshmukh’s lab found it was important for neuron maturation and a potent inhibitor of neuronal death. His lab also found that miR-29 targets multiple members of a specific family of “pro-apoptotic” genes. Apoptosis is the scientific name for cell death. This work marked the first time scientists found a microRNA molecule capable of putting the brakes on neuronal death – a major feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

The NIA funding will help Deshmukh’s lab examine the importance of miR-29 in maintaining a healthy adult brain with the hope of finding a microRNA route to an Alzheimer’s therapy.

Media contact: Mark Derewicz, 984-974-1915, mark.derewicz@unchealth.unc.edu