Parkinson’s Researcher to Receive $9M as 2021 HHMI Investigator

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by Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD |

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A scientist from the University of California San Diego, whose research has focused on an enzyme seen as a primary genetic driver of Parkinson’s disease, will receive approximately $9 million in funding over the next seven years as a new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

Elizabeth Villa, PhD, an associate professor of biological sciences at UC San Diego, was one of 33 researchers — chosen from a pool of more than 800 scientists — named as a 2021 HHMI Investigator.

“HHMI is committed to giving outstanding biomedical scientists the time, resources and freedom they need to explore uncharted scientific territory,” Erin O’Shea, HHMI’s president said in a press release announcing the 2021 class of investigators, who come from 21 U.S. institutions.

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Instead of simply awarding scientists grant money, HHMI employs them as investigators — and their funding is renewable at the end of the seven-year term, pending a scientific review.

Villa will use the HHMI funding to further her investigations into the structure and function of leucine-rich repeat kinase 2, known as LRRK2, an enzyme key in Parkinson’s genetics.

LRRK2 is part of a specific group of enzymes that add phosphate tags to other proteins, affecting their function. Mutations in LRRK2 are one of the main causes of inherited forms of Parkinson’s. However, researchers are still not clear on how this particular enzyme functions in its normal or disease state.

Villa and colleagues helped develop a technique, called cryo-FIB milling, that allows researchers to freeze cells and then cut them into very thin layers to be “photographed” using electron microscopy — a technique that uses electrons to obtain high-resolution images.

These pictures can then be transformed into 3D images that resemble cells and their components in their natural environment.

Using innovative visualization techniques, Villa recently determined the structure of the human LRRK2 protein. She now will study the way in which LRRK2 works in both its normal and disease state, to glean new information on how mutations of the protein lead to Parkinson’s.

“We want to find ways to look at these molecules and their mechanisms in context—inside of cells,” Villa said.

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According to Villa, her work is about “bringing structure to cell biology.” Specifically, the researcher is working on developing new techniques to visualize cellular machinery. Her team will investigate LRRK2’s function and whether it plays a role in transporting cellular compounds.

The HHMI Investigator designation will be instrumental in allowing Villa to further her research. She and the rest of the 2021 class join a community that includes approximately 250 scientists, according to HHMI.

“We encourage Investigators to follow new directions, learn new methods, and think in new ways,” said David Clapham, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer.

According to O’Shea, the institute is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” Current and former HHMI investigators include 32 Nobel laureates.