Moses Chao, Ph.D.
By Sam Maddox
Moses Chao, Ph.D., a long-time member and former chair of the Reeve Foundation Science Advisory Council, has been installed as president of the Society for Neuroscience (SFN).
SFN is a 42,000-member organization of the world's brain and spinal cord scientists. Previous SFN presidents with strong ties to the Reeve Foundation include Albert Aguayo (1987-88); Ira Black (1992-93); Lorne Mendell (1997-98); and Rusty Gage (2001-02).
Dr. Chao, a professor of Cell Biology, Physiology, and Neuroscience, and professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, has been involved with the Society for many years. "I started with the Society's journal, Neuroscience; I was an editor there for 11 years," said Chao. "That got me closely involved with the activities of the Society. About 10 years ago I was asked to be chair of the Society's Program Committee, which was a big honor."
Chao helped run the 2003 annual meeting in Orlando, including the processing of 16,000 science abstracts. He was later asked to run for secretary, then president.
More Progress in Research
"One of the reasons I took the position of president is that I feel there is a lot one person can do in that role. There is an opportunity to make an impact on field, particularly at this time when funding is not good." Chao feels the Society can make a bigger impact in pubic policy and support for science. "Given the fact SFN is such a large society, we can do a lot more, not only to promote neuroscience literacy and education but also to advocate for strong public funding."
Chao's own work involves neurotrophins, a family of nutrient proteins that promotes the health and survival of nerve cells and the connections between them. In the 1980s, Chao cloned the first neurotrophin receptor. Later, he identified a second receptor, the existence of which surprised him and the neuroscience community. "It was one of those rare ‘Eureka!' moments," he said. This area of research hopes to understand how these receptors communicate with nerve cells and how neurotrophins carry out their actions. Chao and others have shown that neurotrophins can contribute to a host of neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders.
"In the past, neurotrophic research has emphasized more of the positive aspects – axonal growth, cell survival, differentiation. More recently, we have come to realize there are mechanisms of growth factors that change plasticity and carry some negative aspects – cell death or growth cone collapse."
Chao says neurotrophins are made from larger proteins called proneurotrophins. "Several studies on spinal cord injuries show that proneurotrophins can further damage the cord. So, neurotrophins are a two-edged sword. Normally they are processed in a beneficial way but if there is injury or inflammation, there is potential for these neurotrophins to be damaging. Now we understand that a lot better."
Chao is a firm believer that a high level of discovery science must be done before clinical trials occur. "Everybody wants to take what they are doing and apply it [to patients]; all of us want to do that. I'm not against translational research but we need to understand basic biology first before we can design effective therapies."
Chao thinks that in science today there may be an overemphasis on translating laboratory findings into clinical applications, at the expense of basic research. The establishment of a new $30.7 billion National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is "shortsighted and damaging," he said.
Some worry the creation of NCATS will tilt NIH funding away from basic science toward drug development, an area not familiar to most academic scientists. Others note that NCATS could help advance therapies for rare neurological disorders and others that have been neglected by pharmaceutical companies.
Here's an example, said Chao, why the rush to clinic can be bad for medical science: "In cancer research, there are a lot of drugs now that target specific cancers and they actually work. We don't have that in neuroscience because we don't understand some of the basic questions about these diseases. For example, amyloid is the culprit in Alzheimer's; everyone agrees. But we actually don't know the normal function of amyloid in the body, and if we design a therapy for amyloid – as some companies have tried to do – it's going to be tough to know what's going to happen." Chao noted that Eli Lilly halted two enormously expensive late-stage clinical trials for an experimental Alzheimer's treatment called semagacestat; it worked great in animal models. But in people, it not only worsened patients' symptoms but also increased their risk for skin cancer.
Chao, meanwhile, is confident the neuroscience community will learn from the experiences in other fields to come to terms with various diseases and traumas and devise meaningful treatments based on solid biology.