The Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute aims to advance our understanding of brain disease and injury. In 2019, the O’Donnell Brain Institute welcomed Dr. William T. Dauer, an acclaimed physician investigator in dystonia and Parkinson’s disease, as its inaugural Director. Dr. Dauer joined UT Southwestern from the University of Michigan, where he was Director of the Movement Disorders Group and Director of the Morris K. Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research. Building teams across disciplines, among both scientists and clinicians, is a key focus of the O’Donnell Brain Institute as it seeks to uncover the fundamental causes of brain disease and translate discoveries into treatments.
Q&A with Dr. Dauer
1. What made you decide to join UT Southwestern?
What drew me to UT Southwestern was something that’s known about this institution, nationally and even worldwide: It has a unique culture of excellence and discovery that really is unequaled.
The second draw was bold and visionary leadership. UT Southwestern has taken on this challenge not just for the next two or five years, but to try to achieve these goals and improve the lives of peoples with brain disease.
And the third element is our community. There is a unique bond between the community and this university that was apparent to me even as I was interviewing here. This partnership is really the secret weapon of UT Southwestern, which enables us to do things that are difficult to do anywhere else.
2. What progress is being made in brain science and why are you optimistic that there will be significant breakthroughs?
One of the exciting advances has been to use new neuroimaging techniques to look inside the brain, both in humans and animals in experimental research. Related to that is a suite of new tools that allow us to manipulate specific sets of brain cells. For example, in Parkinson’s, there are a few particular sets of brain cells out of billions that are key to producing the symptoms. The ability to study those in isolation is something new that could never be done before.
Similarly, there are new techniques that allow us to deliver proteins or genes into the nervous system in a highly focused way. In recent years, a retinal disease that causes blindness and a neuromuscular disease that causes death in infancy have been dramatically changed or sometimes cured with gene therapy. Some of the most exciting work in Duchenne muscular dystrophy is happening here at UT Southwestern, led by Dr. Eric Olson, Chair of Molecular Biology and Director of the Hamon Center for Regenerative Science and Medicine.
In neurodegenerative disease in particular, there have been fundamental advances over the last 10 years, as exemplified by the work of Dr. Marc Diamond with Alzheimer’s disease, where we are beginning to understand how molecules can take on a different shape, become toxic, and harm brain cells.
3. How can we prepare for the challenges of tomorrow as they pertain to brain injury and disease?
We need to do better. There are two aspects to that. One is to understand the roots of neurologic illness so that we can devise strategies to block it in its tracks. We then need to “translate” those discoveries into therapies that change clinical care and impact the lives of patients. A critical step for that to happen is what we call patient-centered research. We’re able to track disease processes in patients themselves that we could never imagine 10 or 15 years ago — whether it be advanced brain imaging or taking cells from patients and being able to do innovative research on this material in the laboratory.
But even that is not enough. We need to engage the commercial sector companies to fund and facilitate these discoveries to really bring them to life.
Dr. Dauer moderated our 2019 Leading the Conversation on Health event, titled “On the Cusp: Innovation and Commercialization in Neurodegenerative and Neuromuscular Disease at UT Southwestern.”
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