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Jennifer Palmer

Jennifer Palmer (Supplied)

2020: Jennifer Palmer, University of Otago, has been awarded a Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial PhD Scholarship for research titled: ‘Investigating novel regulators of autophagy in neurodegenerative diseases’

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease present a growing challenge for an ageing society. Current therapies can only treat symptoms and are unable to prevent underlying disease progression. Brain function becomes progressively impaired in these neurodegenerative diseases as toxic misfolded proteins accumulate in brain cells, ultimately killing the cells. Increasing the removal of these toxic proteins from brain cells offers hope for the development of novel treatments. ‘Autophagy’ is the primary clearance mechanism by which cells degrade misfolded proteins. Encouragingly, increasing autophagy can improve brain cell survival and reduce neurodegeneration in animal models and in early clinical trials of neurodegenerative diseases.

However, there are two main limitations preventing autophagy-based therapies entering the clinic.  Firstly, it is largely unknown how autophagy is regulated in brain cells. Current drugs increase autophagy are not very specific and also affect other cellular functions, leading to side effects that limit their use in patients. Secondly, build-up of misfolded proteins in disease can actively impair the autophagy pathway, which may negate attempts to use this pathway therapeutically. Jennifer’s Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial PhD studies will increase our understanding of the regulation of the autophagy pathway in brain cells. She aims to uncover how neurodegenerative disease affects autophagy pathway function. Jennifer’s research is essential for determining which diseases are amenable to autophagy-based therapy and may also reveal novel selective targets for enhancing autophagy to treat neurodegeneration.

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Jennifer Palmer in the cell culture laboratory (Supplied)