In this rendering, healthy neurons afflicted with amyloid plaques are colored orange. Studies suggest this plaque leads to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.
Internationally recognized neurodegenerative disease researcher Riqiang Yan, Ph.D., joined the UConn School of Medicine this spring as chair of the Department of Neuroscience. He has established the medical school’s first research laboratory dedicated to studying and discovering new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Prior to his appointment, Yan served as the Cleveland Clinic’s Morris R. and Ruth V. Graham Endowed Chair Professor and Vice Chair of Neurosciences and professor of molecular medicine at Case Western Reserve University. His five studies that focus on identifying the biological culprits behind Alzheimer’s disease are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Yan’s studies build upon his co-discovery of the BACE-1 protein, the critical molecule that he revealed fuels the production of β-amyloid peptides, or plaque buildup, in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. Studies suggest that these peptides are toxic and lead to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.
Yan and his team are currently testing in mouse models the power and safety of several promising molecules to target BACE-1 and inhibit its biological function in order to prevent or stop further β-amyloid growth. Just before he arrived at UConn Health, Yan’s team published significant findings in the Journal of Experimental Medicine that showed that removing the BACE-1 enzyme in adult mice with Alzheimer’s reverses the plaque formation that inhibits cognitive function. The study was widely covered by national media.
In addition, Yan and his team are gaining greater insight into the important role reticulon 3 protein (RTN3) plays in the formation of dystrophic neurites in the brain, which can lead to memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. The Yan lab is also exploring treatment that aims to enhance neurogenesis to replenish the loss of brain cells in patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“We welcome Dr. Yan to UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut, as he and his research programs are very highly respected by leaders and other scientists in the field,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of UConn School of Medicine.
Yan’s recruitment brings with it a host of research collaboration opportunities across the School of Medicine and its departments of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry; with the UConn Center on Aging; with neurobiology and brain investigators at the University; as well as with the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine on UConn Health’s campus.
“I look forward to working with my colleagues at UConn to expand creative research in neurosciences,” says Yan, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Rockefeller University. “It is my passion and desire to mentor our talented UConn neuroscientists and staff and watch their lists of research, discoveries, and accomplishments grow even greater, along with more national recognition of their efforts.”
He adds: “We all have a hope that in 5 to 10 years, with academia collaborating with pharmaceutical companies, we will indeed have an effective drug to finally treat Alzheimer’s disease.”
There has not been an FDA-approved drug to try to treat the disease since 2002, Yan says. “It’s our big hope, and we will continue to try hard at UConn to discover and test a new, effective drug therapy to make this hope a reality to help those struggling with Alzheimer’s and ease the burden of future patients and their families.”