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Medicine & Science
A Visit with Drs. Cunningham, Gilbertson and Anastasio
by Jim and Lynda Guidry
Monday, March 11, 2013

Guidry News Service recently visited with Drs. Kathryn Cunningham, Noelle Anastasio and Scott Gilbertson, members of an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the University of Houston which has found a new way to influence the vital serotonin signaling system, possibly leading to more effective medications with fewer side effects.  Listen

“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain and we all are familiar with it with regard to the medications that are used for depression,” explained Dr. Cunningham, the senior author of a paper on the research that is now online in the Journal of Neuroscience.  “Drugs like Prozac are an example of a drug medication that enhances the ability of serotonin to do its job.”

Dr. Cunningham, who is a neurobiologist at UTMB, said that the researchers are seeking a new drug that does not have side effects.

“We provide the molecules,” said Dr. Gilbertson, a chemist at UH, describing his part of the research.  “This is really a tight knit group.”

Dr. Gilbertson said that Dr. Anastasio, a postdoctoral fellow at UTMB, is “the engine” that makes the biology happen.

“We took the chemicals that Scott gave us and then first started screening them in cellular assays to look for activity,” Dr. Anastasio explained.  “Then once we found the compounds that were active in our cellular assays we then moved them into some animal models that the serotonin system has been involved in and looked to see whether or not the compounds maintained their activities in the animal models.”

Dr. Gilbertson said the project was interesting to him for a number of reasons.

“One is we’ve targeted interaction between two proteins,” he said.  “That historically has been an area which has been difficult for people to attack.”

He noted that the procedure involves “turning on” an enzyme instead of turning it off, which has the advantage of reducing side effects from the drug.

“We can fine-tune the system,” Dr. Cunningham added.  “I think that’s what is really exciting about this sort of compound that we’re making.  It’s not this ‘turning it all on or off completely, which is what a lot of the typical drugs that are on the market or in development can do; so we can actually tune it to the right level to help in addictions.”

Dr. Anastasio noted that Prozac can be effective in treatment of depression in some patients, but causes side effects.

“It’s like the system is ramped up too much,” she said.  “And so what we have created is a way to ramp it up, but it has a ceiling; it can’t go anywhere above that ceiling.  So, what we’re hoping happens is that we’re able to stimulate that system just enough to cap it out at a functional level and alleviate disorders like addiction or depression.”

In addition to the three researchers who participated in the interview, there are 14 other co-authors involved in the project.

“How do you manage that?” we asked.

“Very carefully,” Dr. Anastasio joked, noting that organization and communication are critical to the study.  “Lots of emails and learning to speak each others’ language – I think that the biggest thing I learned with this project was learning to speak the chemistry and the modeling and being able to actually tell the chemists what our results were so that they could then change the compound so that we could then change our stuff and then actually come up with this paper.”

The three agreed that communication was a challenge in the beginning.

“When we first started collaborating, he spoke chemistry and I spoke neuroscience,” Dr. Cunningham said.  “And the two were pretty far apart at that point.”

However, Dr. Gilbertson said the diversity of skills was advantageous.

“They look at problems with a different eye than somebody who’s been jaded by many years of experience,” he said.  “And the same goes the other way.  I mean, you’re not inhibited by the dogma that may or may not be founded on that.”

For the official news release on the research paper Click Here

Remembering Jim Guidry GRCC Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership

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