The Molecular Biology of Neurosensory Systems

PI: Shelley Smith, PhD
Project Title: The Molecular Biology of Neurosensory Systems
Grant Agency: National Institutes of Health through the National Center for Research Resources
Award: $10.3 million for 5 years

The loss of neurosensory function, particularly the sensations of hearing and vision has devastating affects on communication, education, occupation, and quality of life. Since neurosensory cells of the inner ear and retina are not replaced after damage or degeneration, such losses are permanent. The purpose of the Nebraska Center for the Molecular Biology of Neurosensory Systems is to characterize the genetic mechanisms controlling the development and maintenance of neurosensory functions and the corresponding pathology associated with relevant gene mutations to identify potential avenues for intervention. We will focus our efforts on promising regenerative medicine strategies such as the reconstitution of damaged cells through the use of pluripotent stem cells or de-differentiation and regeneration of post-mitotic cells in the inner ear and retina. These studies utilize specialized animal models that allow control of gene expression at specific critical points in development, with detailed evaluation of the associated findings at the molecular and phenotypic levels. To facilitate these studies, 3 independent research institutions have joined to build an interactive Center with a multidisciplinary approach designed to address to these well-defined objectives. With a core of 3 senior researchers and an exemplary External Advisory Committee, we have successfully mentored 14 junior faculty members and created a collaborative group united by similar thematic and mechanistic approaches. Our research has been facilitated by 3 scientific cores: a Mouse Genome Engineering core for the development of mouse models, a Microarray core for comprehensive assessment of gene expression levels and determination of possible genetic networks, and a Molecular Phenotyping/Histology core to study the results of experimental alterations. These cores are an important addition to the research infrastructure of all 3 institutions. In the second phase of this COBRE project, we will continue to support 6 junior researchers: 2 are studying the mechanisms of specific syndromes of blindness and deaf/blindness, 1 is concentrating on the development and enrichment of retinal stem cell populations, and 3 are studying the molecular pathways of inner ear differentiation with the goal of facilitating sensory regeneration. As those projects obtain external funding and rotate off Center funding, new projects will be added. The addition of new investigators, along with continued support of research activities and the operation of core facilities, will ensure a growing "critical mass" of collaboration that will sustain the Center, and enable participants to obtain external funding which will ensure its long term viability. PUBLIC HEALTH RELEVANCE (provided by applicant): The loss of sensory abilities such as hearing and vision causes devastating affects on communication, education, occupation, and quality of life. Once mature sensory cells of the eye or ear are lost, they are not replaced, so that these losses have been permanent. By studying the genetic controls of development of the sensory cells in the retina and inner ear, the scientists in this Center will determine optimal approaches for therapies utilizing precursor cells that can develop into replacement cells and restore function.

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