Katlyn Meier, Ph.D., was just beginning her career as an independent researcher when she joined the University of Miami in 2019 as an assistant professor of chemistry. With a background in chemistry and physics, Dr. Meier’s prior work focused on the mechanics of proteins and enzymes.
“I never in a million years thought my work would have the possibility for translational application,” she says.
Through the power of mentorship and grants from institutions like the University of Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), Dr. Meier’s work has evolved. She is now investigating the role metals including copper play in neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s disease.
The opportunity to push her work further arrived when Dr. Meier connected with Grace Zhai, Ph.D., senior associate dean for basic science research and a professor of pharmacology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Researchers in Dr. Zhai’s lab use animal – or in vivo – disease models to understand genetic and molecular involvement in neurological disorders.
The two quickly discovered the “natural fit” of their research interests. They began working together along with Dr. Rajeev Prabhakar, PhD., whose lab provides advanced computational approaches to the work.
Dr. Zhai says, “Studying the chemical and physical interaction between metals and proteins is fundamental to understanding the environmental causes of the disease as well as disease progression. Collaboration between the labs will combine the chemical and physical analyses with in vivo models and take advantage of the power of different systems. There is true synergy among us, and we are super excited about the great potential of this collaboration.”
Huntington’s disease is an inherited brain disorder with debilitating symptoms that usually first appear in adulthood. Previous scientific work has established that patients with Huntington’s disease present with elevated concentrations of iron and copper in the brain. But there is no known cure.
Currently, therapeutics offered to patients with Huntington’s disease focus on alleviating symptoms, rather than addressing the root causes of the disease, says Dr. Meier. She also observed that many of the treatments are directed at heavy metals, even though the exact role of the metals had not been established by research.
Through her collaborations with Dr. Grace Zhai and Dr. Prabhakar, Dr. Meier is working to better understand the relationship these metals have in influencing Huntington’s disease. “We can use that information to help guide design of more selective and effective therapeutic options,” she says.
As a CTSI KL2 Scholar, grant funding protects Dr. Meier’s research time, giving her more freedom to be creative or even to fail and try again. Dr. Meier says, “It’s allowed me to start thinking outside of the basic science box, to think of how those projects can now have a translational spin, and that means reaching out to more people on the medical campus.”
Making connections may be the most valuable resource the CTSI has provided Dr. Meier, who says the organization’s networking arm has been a powerful tool in helping her establish herself and advance her work at UM. “It’s just been wonderful,” she says.
“In addition to common scientific interest, I also share the experience of academic life with Dr. Meier,” says Dr. Zhai. “The pairing of a junior faculty member with a senior faculty in the CTSI KL2 program combines the expertise and experience with fresh new ideas and serves as a perfect accelerator for the junior faculty and a rejuvenation for the senior member.”
Looking ahead, the team is working toward securing NIH funding to further the work, which will take a bigger picture approach. “We’re zooming out of the funnel to see how we can make an impact,” says Dr. Meier. “I’m excited for that because it transitions from a project and becomes more like a program.”
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