Dr. Qihui Zhou, a neuroscientist at DZNE’s Munich site, has been awarded a “Starting Grant” from the European Research Council (ERC) worth about 1.5 million euros to investigate disease mechanisms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). With her studies, which will focus on the role of immune cells in the disease process and on the most common genetic forms of ALS and FTD, Zhou aims to pave the way for better treatments.
ALS and FTD are devastating diseases characterized by loss of brain cells for which there is as yet no cure. ALS is associated with progressive paralysis and is usually fatal within a few years, FTD triggers cognitive decline. Despite these differences, the diseases share common features, as they lie at the ends of a spectrum of neurodegenerative disorders with overlapping symptoms. Most patients are “sporadic”, i. e. the causes of disease are unknown. However, some disease variants are genetically determined. This is where Dr. Zhou’s project comes in. “In my research, I will focus on mutations in a gene called C9orf72. These are the most common genetic cause in both ALS and FTD”, she explains. “These mutations have various consequences on the molecular and cellular scale. I hypothesize that certain immune cells play a pivotal and as yet unsolved role in all of this. Particularly, I will be looking into T cells, which are a subtype of white blood cells.”
Inflammation in the spotlight
Zhou’s innovative approach will enter largely uncharted territory. Her research project is scheduled to run for five years, involving a team of six scientific staff. “This grant gives me the great opportunity to expand my research group and recruit new collaborators,” the neuroscientist says. Investigations will be carried out in cell cultures, animal models and biomaterials from patients. They will draw on state-of-the-art technologies to unravel phenomena underlying neurodegeneration in ALS and FTD.
“There is evidence that inflammation is a crucial aspect of many neurodegenerative diseases. In ALS and FTD in particular, it appears that such inflammatory processes involve not only the brain’s immune system, which has its own repertoire of immune cells, but also the immune cells of the blood. Thus, I aim to elucidate how mutations in the C9orf72 gene affects the brain’s immune system and peripheral immune cells”, Zhou says. “I suspect that T cells represent a link between different phenomena observed in ALS and FTD. Therefore, I see these immune cells as a kind of missing piece of the puzzle that will help us to better understand the disease mechanisms. My vision is that this will contribute to find biomarkers and drug targets, thus driving the development of new therapies.”
About the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, DZNE (German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases): DZNE is a research institute funded by the German federal and state governments, comprising ten sites across Germany. It is dedicated to diseases of the brain and nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS, which are associated with dementia, movement disorders and other serious health impairments. To date, there are no cures for these diseases, which represent an enormous burden for countless affected individuals, their families, and the healthcare system. The aim of DZNE is to develop novel strategies for prevention, diagnosis, care, as well as treatment, and to transfer them into practice. To this end, DZNE cooperates with universities, university hospitals, research centers and other institutions in Germany and abroad. The institute is a member of the Helmholtz Association and belongs to the German Centers for Health Research. www.dzne.de/en