Miller School Neuroscience Researchers Focus on Collaboration as Key to New Discoveries

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Multidisciplinary collaboration is essential for life-changing neuroscience discoveries, innovative technologies, clinical therapies, and preventive disease strategies, according to participants at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s 2022 Neuroscience Retreat.

James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., leading group discussion

W. Dalton Dietrich III, Ph.D., moderated the daylong October conference at the Lois Pope LIFE Center, which covered the gamut of neuroscience research and a wide range of challenging problems, from spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries to neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia, as well as preventive and protective strategies for brain health.

There are more than 170 neuroscience projects underway in various departments, centers, and institutes throughout the Miller School, according to Dr. Dietrich, senior associate dean for discovery science.

“UM is a neuroscience powerhouse,” said Dr. Dietrich, who is also professor of neurological surgery, neurology, biomedical engineering and cell biology, co-director for the Institute for Neural Engineering, scientific director of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and the Kinetic Concepts Distinguished Chair in Neurosurgery. “But we need to do a better job of collaborating, recruiting and training the next generation of neuroscience researchers.”

“We have an abundance of outstanding scientists in this field, and we achieve our best by working together,” said Henri Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean and chief academic officer, welcoming researchers from dozens of Miller School programs, centers, and institutes to the Saturday retreat. “We need to foster interactions that will exponentially increase productivity and yield seminal discoveries that will be translated into clinical interventions to help humanity. We want to be a beacon of hope, and this is the next step in turning that dream into reality.”

Neuroscience is a top priority for the Miller School, said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., executive dean of research for the Miller School, director of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, professor of medicine, biochemistry and molecular biology, and the Oscar de la Renta Endowed Chair in Cancer Research. The retreat was sponsored by the Office of the Executive Dean for Research as part of their mission to break down silos and build collaborations across the school.

Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Ph.D.

“This retreat will help us determine investment priorities and support team science, now and in the future,” Dr. Nimer said. “Our researchers should not be limited to collaborations within their departments or with those in nearby lab space. In my role as the EDR, I have made it our priority to bring together scientists to make impactful discoveries. Science is collaborative, and we must do everything we can to support the highest quality research.”

Human Genetics and New Technologies

A presentation on “Human Genetics and New Technologies” was led by Margaret A. Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., director of the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics (HIHG) and the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Professor of Human Genetics. Dr. Pericak-Vance discussed ongoing advances in gene mapping and genomics that incorporate participants from underrepresented populations. “We are also excited about a world-class biorepository facility now being built at our institute,” she said.

Anthony Griswold, Ph.D., assistant professor and associate director, Center for Genome Technology at HIHG, spoke on the importance of new resources to support leading-edge gene sequencing and gene expression studies. “With AI/ML [artificial intelligence/machine learning] new tools, we can pull new insights from all the big data we are accumulating,” he said.

Brain Health and Aging

In the “Brain Health, Aging, and Degenerative Diseases” presentation, David Loewenstein, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, focused on the work of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Aging. “We have developed stress tests that can detect pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease that have been commercialized and are now used all over the world,” said Dr. Loewenstein, who serves as director of the center.

He also pointed to the collaborative work being done by 1Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, a statewide consortium that is one of 31 centers in the U.S. that are funded by the National Institutes of Health. “It is team science that will guide us,” he said.

James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., professor of neurology and director of the Comprehensive Center for Brain Health, also emphasized the importance of integrating clinical, translational, and population research programs in a neuroscience strategic plan. He leads the Miller School’s Lewy Body Dementia Research Center of Excellence, the only such center in South Florida, and the Healthy Brain Initiative, which develops preventive strategies for neurodegenerative diseases.

Sensory Sciences and Engineering

In the “Sensory Sciences and Engineering” presentation, Vittorio Porciatti, Ph.D., vice chair and director of research and the James L. Knight Professor of Ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, discussed using electrophysiology to assess the function of retinal ganglion cells to treat vision-impairing diseases at an early stage, and the use of stem cells for retinal organoid platforms.

Suhrud Rajguru, Ph.D.

Discussing changes to the federal funding landscape, Suhrud Rajguru, Ph.D., associate professor, biomedical engineering and otolaryngology, said that the University can benefit from neuroscience technology initiatives that are clinically ready and commercially deployable.

“We need to put more biomedical engineers on the Miller School campus,” said Dr. Rajguru, co-director for the Institute for Neural Engineering and assistant director for team science at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “We can keep building on our collaborative strengths by harmonizing resources across different campuses.”

Neural Injury and Repair

The Miller School has the potential to be the top destination in the world for detecting and repairing damage to the nervous system, said Dr. Dietrich in the fourth presentation on “Neural Injury and Repair.” That would mean creating a “seamless pipeline” for translating scientific discoveries into commercial applications that can improve the mobility and overall quality of life for individuals with paralysis, ischemic stroke, and neurological disorders.

(Right) Antonio Barrientos, Ph.D.

Additional investments in bioinformatics can accelerate the drug discovery and technology innovation processes, added Vance Lemmon, Ph.D., professor of neurological surgery and the Walter G. Ross Distinguished Chair in Developmental Neuroscience. “Screening technologies can help us identify important biomarkers as well as potential therapies,” Dr. Lemmon said.

Bringing Disciplines Together

University of Miami trustees Stuart Miller and Marc Buoniconti attended the retreat and applauded the focus on bringing together a wide range of disciplines, including neural engineering, nanotechnology, genetics, and stem cells.

“I was inspired by the discussion,” said Miller. “When we work in silos, we only address parts of the puzzle, and by bringing you all together, I know we will make a difference in neuroscience.”

Buoniconti noted that most U.S. neuroscience institutes treat patients but do not conduct scientific research.

(From left) Dr. Suhrud Rajguru; Dr. James Galvin; Stuart Miller; Dr. Barth Green; Marc Buoniconti; Dr. David Loewenstein; Dr. W. Dalton Dietrich III; Dr. Margaret Pericak-Vance; Dr. Anthony Griswold

“That is the secret sauce that the University of Miami has over most other centers,” Buoniconti said. “We have a great opportunity to combine our resources, connect our departments and focus on science—and the more science we do, the better our clinical programs and ability to provide treatments.”

He also cited the success of The Miami Project, calling it a magnet to the spinal cord injury community. “Now, we have the same opportunity to move the needle in neuroscience and make a difference by pooling our resources.”

At the conclusion of the retreat, Dr. Nimer announced that the Office of the EDR will support a new Team Science Funding Program in neuroscience. Up to $500,000 will be awarded to support innovative research projects, where two or more principal investigators (PI) from different departments come together to conduct innovative, multidisciplinary neuroscience research.

These grants will support work that can be leveraged into larger, externally funded multi-PI awards in the near future. Numerous action items were generated from the retreat, which will be acted upon in the months ahead.

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