Understanding Memory Loss

Susanna Rosi, PhD, and Peter Walter, PhD
2016 - 2019 Weill Innovation Award

"It has been eye-opening to see how quickly one can really move from basic discovery into potential preclinical development." Peter Walter, PhD

Peter Walter, PhD, Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, and Susanna Rosi, PhD, Department of Physical Therapy, have come a remarkably long way – literally and figuratively­ – over the course of their careers. Each fought hard for an education in a family where a college degree was nearly unthinkable – Dr. Walter in West Berlin, and Dr. Rosi in a small village in Italy. Defying all odds, both are now leaders in their fields. With the help of the Weill Innovation Award, Drs. Rosi and Walter hope to understand what happens to the brain when a person loses the ability to remember. This investigation is founded on the discovery of a novel drug with the potential to reverse memory loss and enhance cognition.

On their unlikely origin stories: “I grew up in Tuscany in a very poor family. I always wanted to know as much as possible about everything, but there was no money for school. My oldest brother fought for me to get an education – something he couldn’t do himself. Still, he didn’t let that stop him from learning. He collected encyclopedias, and he studied at home. For me, seeing those books sparked a will to learn, to study.” Susanna Rosi

“I grew up in West Berlin, surrounded by a wall, and was also the first in my family to get a college degree. My dad owned a little drug store, selling soaps, chemicals, sundry things, and I got fascinated by chemistry, as a child mostly from the pyrotechnic angle. I liked to make fireworks, to make stuff explode, and later became serious about chemistry.” Peter Walter

What brought them to UCSF: “When I graduated from my PhD program, I got a job offer at UCSF, and I’ve been here ever since. UCSF is such a wonderful environment that, though some people tried to pull me in other directions over the last 34 years, there has never been a force strong enough to take me away.” Peter Walter

“Like Peter, I came after I finished my PhD program. I visited and fell in love with the Bay Area, and I ended up applying to the best place I could be in my career: UCSF.” Susanna Rosi

How they’re using the award: “At a molecular level, we’re trying to understand what happens to the brain when we lose the ability to remember things and how we can reverse this process. We also want to understand how the molecule Peter has discovered might make lots of people feel better.” Susanna Rosi

“We will be going into ever-more detailed mechanistic analyses and ask very precisely – with one of the best methods available that was invented here at UCSF – which enzymes and which proteins are being synthesized now at changed levels. What happens when we administer this drug and help our animal subjects overcome cognitive deficits?” Peter Walter

The most surprising thing about this work: “For me, it has been eye-opening to see how quickly one can really move from basic discovery into potential preclinical development. It’s also a wonderful example of how basic curiosity during research suddenly finds an application that was completely unpredictable. My lab didn’t set out to cure cognitive defects; our project just evolved.” Peter Walter

“I am so excited about opening up possibility for people who have suffered brain injuries. I've always been such a big fan of the idea that the brain is without limits. Now I'm seeing something that says that might really be true.” Susanna Rosi