“Our ability to make progress in ALS depends so much on attracting the best young scientists into the field. The ALS Association’s Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship program is a critical part of that effort. Almost 90 percent of our Fellows stay in ALS research, making up a significant fraction of the younger generation of ALS researchers.”
– Dr. Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D., M.B.A., Chief Scientist, The ALS Association
Javier Jara, Ph.D., is a Research Assistant Professor in Dr. Hande Ozdinler’s laboratory in the Department of Neurology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. He was funded by The ALS Association’s Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship for ALS Research from 2010-2012 and recently was awarded his own Investigator-Initiated grant by The Association. These awards helped support his research including a project that focuses on how upper motor neurons die in ALS and how to intervene to prevent their death. The results of this project were featured in the January 21, 2016, issue of Gene Therapy. Recently, we sat down with Dr. Jara to learn more about his exciting research project and to get to know the person behind the science.
What has the support from The ALS Association meant to you? Do you have a message for donors who helped make your projects possible?
I want to give a big thank you to the donors for their support and trust. Without their generous contribution, I would not be where I am now. I am extremely grateful!
Do you think the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has inspired more scientists to investigate ALS?
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge brought an unprecedented level of awareness to ALS. It brought in more funding so more scientists have the opportunity to join the ALS field. It is very good to bring new expertise and have a fresh insight into how to investigate ALS.
How can we attract more dedicated researchers such as yourself to pursue ALS research?
The ALS Association is doing a great job of this by continuing and expanding the Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship program. It keeps growing to give more opportunities to more scientists like myself.
What is your academic background and how did you get involved in ALS research?
I am from Bahia Blanca, Argentina. I attended Universidad Nacional del Sur in Bahia Blanca, Argentina for my undergraduate Biochemistry degree in 2004. Then I moved to the United States and attended the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, for my Ph.D., where I studied signaling pathways related to inflammation. In 2008, I moved to Chicago and did a brief postdoc in Ophthalmology. I then decided that I wanted to work in neurodegeneration and joined Dr. Hande Ozdinler’s lab at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago for a post-doctoral fellowship. I was Dr. Ozdinler’s first post-doctoral fellow, and I had the great opportunity to initiate many projects in the lab and work on them from the very beginning to answer the question: Why do upper motor neurons die in ALS?
What do you like most about the ALS field of study?
ALS is an incredibly diverse field, and there are so many research angles to tackle the disease. In the near future, there will be even more understanding of ALS disease mechanisms and novel ways to intervene.
What challenges you the most in ALS research?
To find and establish the right collaborations and to be very open and honest within these collaborations. Hande and I have established excellent collaborations to help with new techniques to get things done! Everyone does a part, and in the end, you can put it all together.
What qualities make for a good scientist?
It requires many qualities such as humbleness, strict morals, and ethics, resolution, to have a never-give-up attitude, and to be a very hard worker.
What are you most passionate about in research?
I like the designing, doing, and analyzing the experiments the best. This is the most exciting part for me. It can be frustrating, but I love thinking outside of the box to find the answer.
What do you like least about research?
The constant pressure to get funding to stay in the academic field is very daunting.
In layman’s terms, please give some highlights from your most recent paper featured in Gene Therapy and your other project both funded by The ALS Association.
The long-term goal of my project is to understand how upper motor neurons (UMNs) die in ALS and how to intervene and stop their death. Our paper shows that we can specifically introduce genes of interest into UMNs in the motor cortex (the part of the brain that controls motor function) with a particular type a virus. Using this technique, we demonstrate that UMNs are equally able to express that gene in beginning and during disease progression. This is important because it gives us a window of opportunity when you can treat the disease while disease is still happening. Our findings also provide a potential translational opportunity for gene therapy to use this virus in clinical trials. The Les Turner ALS Foundation and The ALS Association supported this paper. I am also working on a project supported by The ALS Association Milton Safenowitz Post-Doctoral Fellowship aimed at understanding how neuroinflammation affects an ALS mouse model. I have invested a lot of time in this project since 2010 and am excited about the results! We are hoping to submit this paper by this summer. Keep a lookout for it.
Earlier, you pointed out the importance of collaborations in research. Do you want to mention your collaborators here?
Yes. Dr. Richard Miller is my collaborator for Milton Safenowitz project. Drs. Marta Bohn, Yongling Zhu, and Steven DeVries helped with my virus work. Other great collaborators are Drs. Christine DiDonato, Marco Martina, Gordon Shepherd, C.J. Heckman, Marin Manuel, Katharina Quinlan, and Raymond Roos.
Why is it important to focus on upper motor neurons versus lower motor neurons?
Both upper and lower motor neurons die in ALS. The UMNs play a key role in ALS, but we do not know too much about why they die. My research can have implications in terms of answering questions like: Do they die at the same time? Is it a process where one dies before the other? Does one die as a consequence of the other? Do they participate in the initiation of the disease or later on?
There are gorgeous images in your paper. Can you describe what it takes to obtain your images?
Thank you! I invested so much time and appreciate that you like my images in the paper. Imaging is the part that I enjoy the most in my project, even though it is complicated, but it is so interesting. I have access to different microscopes throughout Northwestern University and affiliated facilities. I have learned so much about how to use microscopes and how to look at cells. For example, sometimes it takes over an hour to find an image that properly represents my data to include in the figure in my paper, but the beautiful end product is all that matters.
How do your findings of a new way to introduce virus into UMNs translate into potential therapies? What are your next steps?
The next step is to see how to get our project to the next level in a higher level of species. Now we know the most suitable conditions to apply the virus, and we can introduce other genes into the virus to see how they affect the health of UMNs. Since now we have a baseline, we know how we can use the virus in future studies and even in clinical trials later on.
What else do you think is exciting in ALS research? What are the bright spots on the horizon?
Because of the Ice Bucket Challenge, ALS research has accelerated. There have been many new developments. For instance, many drug companies have begun to show interest in ALS again and multi-national collaborations are being established among scientists and foundations. Most importantly, people in the field feel more determined to find a cure. I think these are very important times for the ALS field.
Is there a mentor that stands out to you? Tell me about him/her and how they helped you.
I have had many different mentors throughout my career. My Ph.D. advisor Dr. Colin Combs helped me navigate the beginning of my scientific career and my transition period to the United States. Dr. Hande Ozdinler has been a great mentor to me in the last few years. She is my biggest advocate. A story that I like to tell: In 2009, I remember when she walked into the lab and showed me the call for the Milton Safenowitz Post Doctoral Fellowship. She said, “They are calling for you and this is for you.” I said, “Are you sure? This is a competitive and prestigious award.” She insisted, “This is for you and you have to apply.” These words resonated in my mind and gave me a huge confidence boost. She keeps doing this. She is the biggest supporter in my scientific career. And Dr. Lucie Bruijn has been a mentor to all the fellows, and to me too, and I am extremely grateful for her advice. She has always been there for me. I admire that if I need something and email her, five minutes later I have an answer, even though she is very busy.
Who are your heroes?
My parents. They gave me the strength and confidence to move to a foreign country, learn a new language, and obtain a Ph.D. They do not know anything about science, but their support has been great for me!
What do you do for fun?
I like to travel, and I go to the opera in Chicago whenever I can. I am also a marathon runner. I also love to spend time with my family and my two Chihuahua dogs.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Knitting is an excellent stress reliever and makes me happy because Chicago is very cold, and I always have warm hats to wear. I also enjoy photography and take photographs with my DSLR camera.
Do you have anything else that you would like to share?
Last summer, there was a garage sale, and I was talking to someone, and she asked what I do for a living. I told her that I am an ALS researcher. She could not believe this because the owner of the house [that is having the garage sale] is a person living with ALS and was sure that she would love to meet me. She invited me in, and I got to know her. It was a life-changing experience! We are still friends today, and I occasionally stop by to give her ALS research updates. It gives her hope, and it shows me firsthand that what I do is meaningful to people living with ALS
Learn more about The ALS Association’s global research program and check back for more Researcher Spotlights!