This year The ALS Association has pledged to do whatever it takes to make ALS a livable disease, which means longer lives for people living with ALS, greater quality of life for people living with the disease and ultimately the prevention of ALS altogether. Researchers like our 2020 Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship Program recipients are playing an important role in helping to make this happen.
Our Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship Program continues to support young scientists and is the only program of its kind specifically funding early ALS postdoctoral fellows eagerly searching for a cure. Founded in memory of Mr. Safenowitz by the Safenowitz family through The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter, this unique program encourages young scientists to enter and, importantly, to remain in the ALS field.
More than 75% of the postdoctoral fellows we fund go on to start their own labs to continue studying ALS and mentor other young ALS researchers. The rest of the Safenowitz fellowship program graduates typically go on to careers in the biomedical industry, nonprofits, and medical writing, with many still staying in the ALS space.
This year, we are proud to support eight new postdoctoral fellows out of a highly competitive applicant pool, two of which were made possible through funds provided by The ALS Association Oregon and SW Washington Chapter. Over the next few months, we will continue to highlight each fellow, their dedication and unique contributions to ALS research, as well as their interests outside of the lab.
We recently talked with Dr. Yichen Li, postdoctoral fellow from the Ichida Lab at the University of Southern California to learn about her unique project focused on the efficacy of suppressing a gene called SYF2 as a therapeutic strategy for diverse forms of ALS.
Can you briefly describe your academic background?
I read Biochemistry for my undergrad in the Netherlands. There, I was deeply touched by the compassion and the dedication my first mentor in neuroscience, Professor Dick Swaab, has towards brain research. I subsequently studied the development and the degeneration of human brains through a research master’s at Imperial College London and a Ph.D. at Oxford, UK.
It is said that every 90 minutes, someone is diagnosed with ALS and every 90 minutes someone dies from the disease. Time is not on the side of those who are diagnosed, and no matter what issues we are all currently facing in the world, ALS won’t stop, so neither will we. What are you doing to address the urgency our ALS community is feeling?
As a researcher, I think being fully responsible for what I claim I found in the lab is my way to show respect to ALS patients and families. Our lab’s research is heavily translational orientated; using patient-derived motor neurons to discover therapeutic agents. Perhaps seeing the meaning behind the drug screens, enduring repeating the same experiments on as many patient lines as I could and always being hopeful that there will be better treatment options for patients are what I’d like to think how I have addressed the urgency the ALS community is facing.
What are the goals of your funded research project?
My project at the Ichida Lab seeks to validate the efficacy of suppressing a gene called SYF2 as a therapeutic strategy for diverse forms of ALS. SYF2 was identified from a compound screen done in our lab and the suppression of it has been shown to extend the survival of induced motor neurons from all patients with C9ORF72 expansions and about 70-80% of sporadic cases that we tested.
We think this is significant because sporadic cases are heterogenous in the causes of the disease and it has been very challenging to develop a therapy that can effectively protect the sporadic population. My goal is to validate that suppressing SYF2 is protective to multiple different forms of ALS, to understand the therapeutic mechanism of action, and to push this strategy to clinical trials.
Why did you decide to study ALS over other diseases?
I am fascinated by the nervous system, especially the human central nervous system. However, very little is known about how it works and that makes knowing how it dysfunctions difficult. Deciphering the codes of the human mind will likely take several folds of my lifespan. I am happy studying ALS because it is relatively homogenous regarding the vulnerable cell populations and we have learned a lot from past research about the disease mechanisms. Personally, I have learned valuable lessons on studying complex diseases. I think studying ALS will also serve as a great training for my research career.
What do you like about working in the ALS research field?
I like the community a lot, like the conferences and the patient involvement. My favorite part has to be listening to the updates on ALS clinical trials. My impression was always that the bench to bedside transition is happening so fast for ALS, when it’s compared to other neurological disorders. To me, this is really exciting and encouraging.
How might your work impact the ALS community?
The goal of my current work is to validate the efficacy of a therapeutic agent that we think can protect diverse forms of ALS. Our hope is that if an earlier diagnosis is not available, we could protect the motor neurons that are still functional and prevent them from degenerating when the patient is first diagnosed. Our lab is also working on other strategies that can promote the affected motor neurons to get rid of the toxic proteins. Taken together, I think my work at the Ichida Lab may lead to restoration of the deteriorating motor functions and possibly a longer prognosis.
Where can people get more details about your research project?
I’m open to talking to patients and families and other researchers. More of my and other exciting projects on ALS in the Ichida Lab can be found at: https://ichidalab.usc.edu
It is often said that ALS is one of the most complex diseases to understand. Yet, you go to work every day to tackle the challenges of your research. What gives you hope that there will someday be a world without ALS?
We have traveled to space and captured the first light of the universe. I think collectively as a species, our curiosity and our empathy will drive the advance of science. Simply seeing how much more knowledge do we have on ALS now, compared to 10 years ago, would give me the hope that there will someday be a world without ALS.
What do you like to do when you aren’t in the lab?
I enjoy reading the most. It is like time traveling with the authors. I often marvel at the ability of the human mind to create fictions that are completely made-up but full of real-world and relatable experiences. I enjoy contemporary art as well. These are partially why I am dedicated to study the human neurological diseases; we are our brains.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to express my gratitude towards my lab mates and my mentor, Justin Ichida; fighting a devastating disease is not easy, but they made it more fun. I would also like to thank The ALS Association and the Safenowitz family for funding my project. I am looking forward to sharing new data with fellow ALS researchers.