Two New Faculty Join the Buck Institute

Both study the nervous system - from different angles 

Pejmun Haghighi, PhD, and Jennifer Garrison, PhD, both study neuroscience.  Both do their research in tiny animals – she in worms, he in fruit flies. Both have specialties that highlight the complexity of the nervous system. But then their research paths diverge.

Pejmun Haghighi, PhD, ProfessorPejmun Haghighi, PhD

Haghighi is focused on neurotransmitter release at single synapses, the structure across which nerve impulses pass. Garrison is interested in a large class of signaling molecules called neuropeptides which are secreted from neurons and transmit messages within the brain and across the nervous system.

Haghighi studies synaptic growth, function and plasticity in both normal and diseased animals, aiming to identify the very earliest malfunctions in synaptic function. “There is an assumption that aging causes these malfunctions,” said Haghighi, who was appointed as a professor. “But perhaps the opposite is true; it could be that malfunctions at the synapse drive the aging process,” he said, noting that existing therapies for neurodegenerative diseases only target symptoms. “One of our goals is to design novel therapeutics that would address neurodegenerative disease from an entirely new angle. We would like to understand and ultimately reverse the imbalances in synaptic function that may precede neurodegeneration by decades.”

Haghighi is highly interested in TOR (target of rapamycin), a nutrient-sensing protein complex implicated in aging and under study in many Buck labs. While at Montreal’s McGill University, Haghighi had identified TOR as a critical player in balancing synaptic activity. “My interests immediately clicked with other researchers at the Buck,” he said. Overlapping projects with the Kapahi and Jasper labs focus on signaling pathways that impact the nervous system and the gut.

Jennifer Garrison, PhD, Assistant ProfessorJennifer Garrison, PhD
Assistant Professor

Garrison, who is an assistant professor, wants to understand how neurons communicate with each other outside of synapses and how neuropeptides regulate changes in normal and aging animals. Neuropeptides influence behaviors and processes as diverse as appetite control, sleep, pair bonding and energy metabolism. “Little is known about neuropeptide circuitry,” she said. “The simple worm, C. elegans, which shares a number of neuropeptide genes and enzymatic pathways with higher animals provides a perfect starting point for this complex work.”

Garrison is also interested in using C. elegans for early stage drug screening. But the worms pose a challenge when it comes to drug discovery. The tiny worms, which normally live in rotting fruit, are masters at resisting and pumping out foreign compounds. Garrison is developing strains of C. elegans that are better suited for the job. “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.

Buck President and CEO Brian Kennedy, PhD, is excited to welcome both Haghighi and Garrison to the Buck. “They are well established in their respective fields and bring depth to our existing programs aimed at developing therapies that would extend lifespan,” he said. “In addition, they both bring new technological expertise that will facilitate collaborations that contribute to the unique environment at the Buck.”            

Haghighi was first introduced to the Buck when faculty member Pankaj Kapahi, PhD, asked him to give a talk about his work on the TOR pathway. Garrison took her first faculty position after being awarded a prestigious K99 “Pathway to Independence” award from the National Institutes of Health. This highly competitive award is given to promising postdoctoral fellows to help them establish their own labs.

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