Alabama-based Southern Research has appointed neurodegenerative diseases expert Rita Cowell as chair of its neuroscience department to help expand research into potential cures for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Cowell’s work has focused on the root causes of why people develop neurodegenerative diseases that lack cures or effective treatments.
“Some of these disorders actually converge on similar pathways in the brain. Even though they look different on the outside, if you look at one region of the brain, the process at the cell level is actually very similar,” Cowell said in a press release. “The idea is that if we could understand what that process is, we could use one drug to target one set of symptoms that is common to these diseases.”
She added: “What distinguishes these diseases and their symptoms from each other is the cell types in the brain that are dying. What we’re trying to do is to use our understanding of the basic biology of how neurons work to understand how they’re aging and how they’re dying in people that have these disorders.”
Cowell’s lab work, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Michael J. Fox Foundation, has focused on identifying a target that may be involved in triggering these neurological diseases: PGC-1 alpha. This protein could be a solid target for a new treatment, said Cowell, explaining that her ultimate goal is to develop a small-molecule drug that could prove useful against several neurological diseases.
“Rita’s extensive understanding of these debilitating neurological disorders will be instrumental in advancing our goal of discovering novel treatments for patients who desperately need help,” said Mark Suto, vice-president of Southern Research’s drug discovery division. “We believe that she is the ideal person to direct our Neuroscience Department as we strategically expand it over time into new areas of investigation that align with our drug discovery mission.”
Before joining Southern Research, Cowell spent a decade at University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), where she was associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology. Southern Research, which like UAB is also headquartered in Birmingham, participate in the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, which is currently funding three neuroscience projects.