Professor Wilma Friedman Receives $2 Million NIH Grant

Why do epileptic seizures cause brain cells to die off, leaving patients compromised over time—and is there a way to stop it?

Professor Wilma Friedman, of the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers-Newark, recently received a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to find out.

According to Friedman, all traumatic brain injuries cause neurons, or brain cells, to die. The process with epilepsy seizures is no different: A type of protein called a growth factor—this one is named ProNGF—binds to a cell receptor called P75 and tells the cell to die.

In other non-trauma situations, however, “the receptor doesn’t get these instructions and isn’t turned on,” says Friedman. “We’re trying to uncover why, with seizures, this occurs.”

If Friedman’s research team can understand this process, the benefits may reverberate beyond epilepsy patients to include those stricken by strokes and other traumatic brain injuries, or possibly degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The recent NIH grant to study epilepsy is just one of several grants funding Friedman’s research. Each grant funds a different aspect of her work.

Her overarching interest—gauging the role of neurotrophin growth factors in the brain after injury—is being funded by a long-term NIH grant begun in 2002 that runs through next year, possibly longer if she can get it renewed a second time.

A three-year grant from the NJ Commission on Brain Injury Research is enabling Friedman’s team to look specifically into what regulates the production of the P75 cell receptor, how is it turned on, and what tells the cell to die.

Another pending NIH grant will help her team to study the mechanisms of inflammation of the brain after brain injury, and its effect on neuronal cell death.

It’s all part of running a research lab circa 2011.

“Grants drive our operating budget,” says Friedman, who, as director of the lab, spends most of her time directing research, teaching, reviewing journal manuscripts, and writing and reviewing grants. “Most lab positions are funded exclusively through these awards.”

Funding, doing the research, and getting it published: These are the benchmarks for success in science. “And publications, which is really about communicating your results with the scientific community, become your track record for getting the next grant,” says Friedman.

The entire process keeps her lab a dynamic place, with different teams of post-docs, graduate students and undergrads coming and going. But working with students, along with the research, is what drives Friedman.

“It’s extremely gratifying to have students in the lab for four or five years, and really have the chance to develop them as scientists,” says Friedman. “The work is rigorous and rewarding. If it can lead to positive therapies for these patients, then we’ve attained our goal.”