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On the Cusp

Dr. Susan LindquistBy Tom Nurre

Using yeast cells as “living test tubes” to isolate, manipulate and study the genes related to various neurodegenerative diseases, researchers like Dr. Susan Lindquist are gradually coming to grips with the causes and possible treatments of diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and ALS.

“Some of the things that go wrong are basic fundamental aspects of normal cell biology,” Lindquist said.  “It’s just that nerve cells are a very specialized cell type, and they are most sensitive to those particular functions. So, if you have a problem in that function, it’s a little bit of a problem for all your cells, but it’s a bigger problem for your nerve cells, and nerve cells are the ones that die first.”

“Because organisms are related to each other by evolutionary descent, and because there are common biological features that they share, it allows you to take advantage of these simpler yeast cells,” she added. “They can be manipulated hundreds of thousands of times more easily than manipulating a brain. So, we can take advantage of them to help solve some of the underlying problems that eventually lead to neurodegeneration.”

A professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Lindquist delivered that message as part of her presentation, “Using Very Simple Organisms to Help Solve Very Difficult Diseases,” for ASU’s annual West Texas Medical Associates (WTMA) Distinguished Lectureship in Science Honoring Dr. Roy E. Moon.

In a series of lectures and informal meetings with students, faculty and the public, Lindquist detailed some of her research utilizing yeast cells to determine what causes the mis-folding of proteins within human cells that causes neurodegenerative diseases.

“We are just on the cusp of being able to utilize recent discoveries for the benefit of the human condition,” Lindquist said.  “We are going to be able to solve or at least postpone some pretty serious diseases. As we live longer, we are all facing neurodegenerative disease, and I think there are going to be some pretty major advances taking place.”

Lindquist is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a member of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. She regularly travels to deliver lectures on her research and has received many honors and awards, including a 2010 National Medal of Science awarded by President Barack Obama and an Honorary Doctor of Science from Harvard University, where she previously earned her Ph.D. in biology.

Ironically, when Lindquist first headed to college at the University of Illinois, she had no intention of becoming a scientist.  Not, that is, until she was “discovered” by one of her science professors who encouraged her to participate in a summer research fellowship sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

“He just kind of casually asked me if I would be interested in doing some research over the summer,” Lindquist said, “because he either thought I was smart or liked some of the questions I asked.  So, I did the summer internship and it really turned me on to doing actual research-based science to try to discover new things that people were curious about, but didn’t know how they worked.”

That summer fellowship led Lindquist to apply and be accepted to the graduate school at Harvard University, where she truly began living out a childhood dream she had barely acknowledged.

“I grew up in a time when young ladies were not encouraged to think about having a career,” Lindquist said.  “While I always secretly harbored an idea to do that, I didn’t always believe it would happen.”

“I did, however, always like biology,” she added. “When I was a little kid, one of my favorite things was to go around the neighborhood and make mixtures. I would get a big mixing bowl from my mother and take berries and other things I would find and mix them up to see what would happen. So I always had that natural affinity and interest in biology and the question of what life is.”

It was also at Harvard that Lindquist began to grow in confidence as she worked in the lab of Dr. Matthew Meselson.  As Meselson was a somewhat absentee boss due to various other projects and political commitments, Lindquist was frequently left to come up with her own new “mixtures.”
“The project I was working on was going nowhere,” Lindquist said, “I heard about something else and I decided to try it just for the heck of it, and it worked.  It ended up being my Ph.D. thesis.”

“I do a lot of what you would call high-risk, high-payoff research,” she added.  “Some of my projects don’t work, but when they do work, they are pretty fabulous.  So, my major way of doing science is doing that sort of research.”

Over the years, Lindquist’s various projects have led her to the forefront of biomedical research.  However, just when she and her fellow researchers are on the verge of what could be significant scientific breakthroughs, they are now facing possible cuts in their federal funding as the government tries to balance its books. 

Generating public support for continued federal research funding is one of the main reasons why Lindquist feels that participating in programs like the WTMA Science Lectureship are particularly important right now.

“In a time of difficult economy, people are going to want to know why they should be excited about spending their tax dollars on this research,” she said.  “It’s because we are in a time of extraordinary and unusual promise.  But, great things are only going to happen if we fund the research, and I think it is important for the public to understand the promise of the research.”

Also, since the vast majority of the scientific breakthroughs and groundbreaking biomedical research have been accomplished in the U.S., continued government research funding could actually provide a future boon to the economy.

“It’s not just to fund the research for the sake of the science, per se,” Lindquist said.  “I think in terms of the economy, it’s going to be a major economic driver in the future in terms of reducing healthcare costs.  So, why should all those patents and discoveries based on work we’ve done in the U.S. wind up in Europe or Asia?  I think we at least need to try to keep up.”

In her quest to publicize ongoing biomedical research, Lindquist has delivered dozens of lectures throughout the world.  She has also appeared in numerous video and internet documentaries, and is a regular guest on various radio networks, including ABC News and National Public Radio.  Even so, she was duly impressed when the WTMA Lectureship selection committee invited her to bring her message to Angelo State.

“It is a great group of speakers that you have had,” Lindquist said.  “It made me realize that this was not just a group that happened to hear about my work and decided to invite me.  It was a really thoughtful group of people who were trying really hard to find who would be the next good speaker.  So, it is a rewarding thing to know that they were people who really cared and were trying to find a good speaker who is doing good science and could also maybe be a role model for some of the women who are aspiring to do science.”

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