Jeffrey Milbrandt, MD ‘78, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Genetics and head of the Department of Genetics, leads faculty members widely recognized for their work to uncover fundamental genetic mechanisms that underlie biological processes and disease.
Milbrandt, who applies genetic tools and genomic technologies to his own studies, has devoted his career to Washington University. His research focuses on neuronal signaling cascades in an effort to understand how specialized nerve cells called glial cells contribute to nerve regeneration after injury.
In a longstanding collaboration with Eugene Johnson Jr., PhD, professor of neurology, Milbrandt’s laboratory discovered a family of growth factors that promote neuronal survival. One member of this family, neurturin, is being evaluated in clinical trials in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Milbrandt’s studies have also pointed to the vulnerability of axons, which transmit signals between nerve cells, in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s. Recently, he has discovered several molecules that can protect axons from degenerating after an injury. These include enzymes, a protein thought to extend life called SIRT1 and resveratrol, a minor ingredient in red wine. He is now working with biotech companies to test therapies that combine growth factors with axonal protective agents as a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.
Milbrandt was also actively involved in the establishment of the Hope Center for Neurological Disorders, a collaboration that pools the intellectual and financial resources of Washington University and Hope Happens for Neurological Disorders. The center is dedicated to supporting and accelerating research that uncovers molecular mechanisms that contribute to neurodegenerative diseases and uses these discoveries to develop new treatments for diseases.
“Many of Jeff’s discoveries have the potential to be important for understanding and treating ALS, and they may also be helpful for other neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis,” says David Holtzman, MD, the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor and head of the Department of Neurology.