March 2, 2011 — The March of Dimes has awarded University of Virginia biologist Sarah Kucenas a $150,000, two-year Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award to further her investigations into the role of glial cells in the construction and maintenance of the peripheral nervous system – work that could have long-term implications for the understanding and treatment of various diseases and birth defects.
Glial cells are a specialized type of cell that help neurons survive and function optimally. One class of glial cells is able to leave the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and migrate into the peripheral nervous system (sensory organs, motor and sensory nerves and glands) as part of a complex coordinated system. It is these cells that Kucenas and her lab are most excited to study.
"Our lab is generally interested in how the nervous system is assembled and maintained; specifically, we're investigating the role of glial cells in formation of the nervous system early in development, and how the nervous system is preserved during disease and injury," said Kucenas, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Understanding these processes could lead to new treatments for a variety of birth defects as well as diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.
Formation of a functional nervous system requires the coordinated interactions of several types of cells, which are derived from distinct precursor cells. These cells must migrate – often great distances – to specific locations in the body. They must then identify each other and coordinate their differentiation so that information, in the form of action potentials, can pass between the peripheral nervous system and the brain.
"We are investigating the cellular and molecular mechanisms that mediate motor nerve formation," Kucenas said. "This should provide important insights into the developmental programs that assemble and maintain functional nervous systems."
A major difference between the central and peripheral nervous systems is that each has its own type of glial cells. In a healthy body, glial cells are tightly segregated and aren't known to travel between the two systems. The peripheral nervous system also regenerates more readily than the central nervous system, due in part to its glial cells – a characteristic that, if better understood, Kucenas said, might be used to improve the regenerative capabilities of the central nervous system.
"The long-term goal of the work in the lab is to understand the development of spinal motor nerve components and how cell-cell interactions result in coordinated differentiation and the maintenance and regeneration of nerves," she said.
Kucenas uses transparent and transgenic zebrafish as a model system because they provide the unique opportunity to combine genetic manipulation with in vivo, time-lapse imaging to study glial cell contribution to the nervous system.
The March of Dimes is a foundation that, among other activities, funds research to discover the genetic causes of birth defects. The Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Awards – created in 1973 and named for the first March of Dimes chairman and president – provide funding to young investigators with promising new research related to the organization's mission.
Kucenas came to U.Va. in 2009 after a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University.