ALS research center planned to open at Vanderbilt University

Nashville medical school recruits neuroscientist to establish and lead lab

Andrea Lobo, PhD avatar

by Andrea Lobo, PhD |

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A neuroscientist with a specialty in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is joining the faculty at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and will establish an ALS research center at the Nashville school.

Véronique Belzil, PhD, whose work is focused on developing tailored treatments for people with ALS, also will serve as director of the first basic science lab in Tennessee exclusively dedicated to the progressive neurological disease.

She comes to Vanderbilt from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where she led work into characterizing the mechanisms that damage and kill motor neurons — the specialized nerve cells that control muscle movement — to cause ALS and the progressive muscle weakness that is a hallmark disease symptom.

“The Vanderbilt ALS Research Center will become a natural extension of my own laboratory’s mission: develop patient-centered approaches to quickly bring findings from bench to bedside so ALS becomes curable,” Belzil said.

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The lab will be one of the few U.S. centers focused on translational ALS research, according to Dane Chetkovich, MD, PhD, a professor and chair of the neurology department at VUMC, which Belzil is joining on Jan. 8. Translational research refers to basic science specifically aimed at moving discoveries “from bench to bedside” as treatments or the like.

“Recruiting Dr. Belzil is an important step forward for Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and most importantly the patients and families who need us to do everything we possibly can to find a cure for ALS,” Chetkovich said in a university press release.

Belzil has been an assistant professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic since 2014, where she leads a lab working in ALS,  frontotemporal dementia, a related disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions.

Belzil and her team’s current research uses human tissue and integrative approaches to identify disease-specific genetic variants and uncover their mechanisms of action in a search for disease biomarkers and potential therapeutic targets. The scientists also use patient-derived cells in work toward gene therapies for ALS and its related disorders.

“Dr. Belzil is a recognized leader in ALS research whose state-of-the-art experimental approaches are well suited to synergize with VUMC’s strengths in genomics and bioinformatics and our goal of making health care personal,” Chetkovich said.

Belzil’s was recruited through a partnership between VUMC with the Live Like Lou Foundation — named for Lou Gehrig, the baseball player who died of ALS — that works to support families affected by the disease and research into potential ALS treatments.

“I am looking forward to establishing a world-renowned collaborative and translational ALS research center by prioritizing open science, teamwork, interdisciplinary expertise, and national and international collaborations,” Belzil said.