Embracing New Technology to Find Parkinson's Therapies

Alexandra Nelson, MD, PhD
2016 - 2017 Weill Scholar Award

“Growing up, we went on hikes, and we identified different trees, plants, and fungi. [My father's] endless enthusiasm for all natural phenomena was contagious.” Alexandra Nelson, MD, PhD

Dr. Alexandra Nelson is using her Weill Scholar Award to better understand the role of a group of mysterious cells in the brain – collectively known as striosomes – in Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic and psychiatric disorders. Located in the striatum, a part of the brain thought to play an important role in these diseases, striosomes have long been inaccessible to scientists hoping to study them and manipulate their function. A revolutionary tool developed by UCSF physician-scientist John Rubenstein, MD, PhD, has changed that. With Dr. Rubenstein’s new instrument, Dr. Nelson can now selectively manipulate striosome cells in animal models to determine if and how they impact emotional decision-making. This work could lay the foundation for new cell-based therapies for a number of disorders, including Parkinson’s.

What sparked her scientific interest: “My father is an astrophysicist, and he has an incurable curiosity about the world around him. Growing up, we went on hikes, and he would have us identify different trees, plants, and fungi. His endless enthusiasm for all natural phenomena was contagious.”

The precise moment that put her on this path: “I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment in a neurobiology class in college, which I took just for fun. I realized that ion channels – which are the molecular basis for the excitability of neurons – could be used to manipulate neuron function. I knew I needed to dedicate my life to understanding them.”

What makes UCSF special: “There are very few barriers between those who are interested in clinical questions and those who are interested in basic science questions.  In my 10 years here – first as a resident, then as a fellow, and now as a professor – I’ve never felt competition, only shared enthusiasm and curiosity, and an overwhelming spirit of collaboration.”

The unlikely origins of this project: “My graduate student, Ally [Girasole], was on the UCSF shuttle talking to another student, Gabriel [McKinsey], who was working with Dr. Rubenstein. Gabe mentioned the tool and asked Ally if she might be interested in using it. That led to a meeting with the four of us, and eventually, this project. Students are sometimes the catalyst that makes these collaborations happen.”