Samikkannu Thangavel, the new associate director of the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology
Samikkannu Thangavel, the new associate director of the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology at Seton Hall University, has received a five-year $2.2 million research award from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). The grant was awarded to Thangavel to conduct Neuro-AIDS research in the context of drugs of abuse.
According to the NIH, these grants are bestowed in recognition of research that has the potential to transform scientific fields and translate, ultimately, into improved health.
Prior to coming to Seton Hall, Thangavel, who holds a doctorate degree in biochemistry and did post-doctoral training in molecular toxicology in Academia Sinica in Taiwan, was an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology at the College of Medicine, Florida International University.
The scientific field within which Thangavel's research will be conducted is known as mito-epigenetics. "Epigenetics" refers to the process by which external or environmental forces may cause a gene to be expressed — or not. The process is essentially the study of changes in gene activity which is not accompanied by underlying changes in the DNA sequence.
Simply put, what you eat, drink, breathe, how often you exercise or how you sleep and a myriad other life activities, including aging itself, "can eventually cause chemical modifications around the genes that will turn those genes on or off over time." In addition, certain diseases such as Alzheimer's and various cancers can also cause genes to switch on or off, from healthy to not. Those processes are the focus of epigenetics. Drugs of abuse can cause epigenetic changes.
Mito-epigenetics, the field of Associate Director Thangavel's study, breaks down the process of gene expression one step further, and looks at the activity (or lack thereof) in the mitochondria of affected cells. Mitochondria are known as "the powerhouses of the cell," and produce the energy that allows the cell to function properly.
HIV infection as well as drugs of abuse can affect the function of mitochondria and ultimately contribute to cellular dysfunction in the brain.
Thangavel's research will focus on the HIV virus, and more specifically the impact that drugs of abuse such as cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids and alcohol can have on those who suffer from neuroHIV/AIDS.
Focusing on neurological impact, the planned study seeks to provide new information about HIV/AIDS and how different genes within people living with HIV are turned on or off within the brain— and how the use of these drugs of abuse contributes to the gene and brain abnormalities found within these individuals.
A particular emphasis of the study will be the genes of HIV/AIDS sufferers affected by cocaine use.
Professor Sulie L. Chang, funding director of the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology; Professor Nicholas Snow, director of research at Seton Hall; Samikkannu Thangavel, the new associate director of the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology
"This work is designed to contribute to the field of neuro-immunology in HIV/AIDS and our knowledge of the impact of drugs of abuse. In particular, information about the genes expressed during the course of HIV infection in the midst of cocaine use and other drugs of abuse – which can accelerate the disease— could improve our understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in the development of neurodegeneration." said Thangavel. "The implications for this research are both crucial and manifold."
An internationally renowned neuroAIDS researcher, Associate Director Thangavel has published extensively in the neuroscience areas of neurotoxicity, inflammation and epigenetics. He has been a leading author of articles in several high-impact journals, including Antioxidant and Redox Signaling, Scientific Reports, Free Radical Biology and Medicine, Journal of Neuroinflammation and AIDS Research and Human Retrovirology.
Focusing its research on the neuroimmunology of health and disease, the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology at Seton Hall is committed to bringing knowledge of neuroimmune pharmacology to life via research, teaching, and community service. It cultivates research among and between the basic and social sciences, and prides itself on fostering research that can translate from the laboratory bench to impact within the community. Prior to this new grant, the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology has received close to $12 million in grants from NIH.
Ongoing studies at the Institute are focused on the interplay of different types of brain cells within the neuroimmune system. The goal of the work is to reveal the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms behind the transition from normal central nervous system function to disorders including addiction and neuroHIV/AIDS. A better understanding of these processes is thought to be one of the first steps in guarding against— or even reversing— these disorders and a number of others that involve neurodegeneration.
Professor Sulie L. Chang, funding director of the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology said, "Dr. Thangavel is a world-class expert in glia biology and energy metabolism in drug abuse. His joining us with this new NIH-funded project is an invaluable asset to the Institute of NeuroImmune Pharmacology at Seton Hall University."
Professor Nicholas Snow, Director of Research at Seton Hall, agreed, adding, "The University has become a home for innovative research, top-tier scientists and important scholarship. This recognition from NIH for research that will enable us to better understand brain degeneration, HIV/AIDS and addiction is just one more example of what great minds can do at Seton Hall."
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