Buck Institute Adds Two New Faculty

Their research focuses on very different realms of the nervous system

September 10, 2013  Novato, CA  Pejmun Haghighi, PhD and Jennifer Garrison, PhD, have joined the Buck Institute faculty. Dr. Haghighi studies basic molecular mechanisms involving neurotransmitter release at the special structure across which nerve impulses pass, the synapse. He is looking at synaptic growth, function and plasticity in both normal and disease states. Dr. Garrison’s research is focused on understanding the function of bioactive peptides in cells. She is particularly interested in neuropeptides, molecules secreted from neurons that transmit messages in the brain and the nervous system. She is also developing new strains of the nematode C. elegans for use in drug discovery.

Dr. Haghighi, who comes to the Buck from McGill University in Montreal, combines genetic and molecular tools with imaging and electrophysiological techniques to study signaling across the synapse in the fruit fly Drosophila.  “We want to understand the very earliest malfunctions in synaptic function,” said Haghighi, who was appointed as a professor. “There is an assumption that aging causes malfunctions in synaptic signaling; but what if the opposite is true, that early malfunctions at the synapse drive the aging process,” he said, noting that existing therapies for neurodegenerative diseases are aimed at controlling symptoms rather than addressing causal factors of disease. “One of our goals is to design novel therapeutics that would address degenerative disease from an entirely new angle.”

While Dr. Haghighi is focused on the cascade of events that happen at a single synapse, Dr. Garrison is studying a class of signaling molecules called neuropeptides that are released over time and can travel far from the synapse to coordinate networks of neurons in the brain. There are hundreds of neuropeptides involved in a wide range of functions, including food intake, metabolism, reproduction, social behaviors, learning and memory. During her previous position at Rockefeller University in New York City, Dr. Garrison’s research showed the nematode C. elegans produces a version of the human neuropeptide oxytocin which has a role in mating behavior. “As a class, little is known about how neuropeptides influence changes across the entire nervous system," said Garrison, who is an assistant professor at the Buck.  “At a basic level I want to understand how neurons talk to each other and how neuropeptides modulate changes in normal and aging animals.” Garrison is also interested in using nematodes for drug discovery and is developing strains of C. elegans that are more amenable to drug screening. Garrison says that C. elegans, whose normal habitat is rotting fruit, excel at excluding or removing foreign compounds from their bodies. “Having a genetically identical population of worms that are more ‘druggable’ would be a valuable resource for the Buck’s drug discovery program and I look forward to being a part of that,” she said.

“I am excited to welcome both of these new faculty to the Buck,” said President and CEO Brian Kennedy, PhD. “They are well established in their respective fields and bring depth to existing programs aimed at developing therapeutics that would target aging and disease processes. In addition, they both bring new technological expertise that will facilitate collaborations that contribute to the unique environment at the Buck,” he said.            

About the Buck Institute for Research on Aging
The Buck Institute is the first freestanding institute in the United States that is devoted solely to basic research on aging and age-associated disease. The Institute is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to extending the healthspan, the healthy years of each individual’s life. Buck Institute scientists work in an innovative, interdisciplinary setting to understand the mechanisms of aging and to discover new ways of detecting, preventing and treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, osteoporosis and stroke. For more information: www.thebuck.org.

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