Research Exploring Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases Underway at Rutgers University–Camden

Maria Solesio

Maria Solesio

By Jeanne Leong

Research by Rutgers University–Camden scholar Maria E. Solesio aims to understand the cellular mechanisms impaired in neurodegenerative diseases, which could lead to lifesaving treatments and improvements to the health and well-being of people living with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Sadly, everyone knows somebody with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases,” says Solesio, an assistant professor of biology. The devastating neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of Americans.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. One in three senior citizens dies of Alzheimer’s, which causes brain cells to degenerate and die, resulting in a decline in thinking and social skills.

Parkinson’s disease affects the ability to control body movements, causing stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination, among other symptoms.

In Solesio’s Rutgers–Camden research lab, researchers are studying mitochondria – essentially the power center of cells – in neurons, which are the main cells in our brains.

By examining the role of mitochondrial dysfunction in the progression of the increased cell death observed in neurons, they analyze what happens to the mitochondria in neuronal models of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our work is important because understanding the mechanism bringing the mitochondria to dysfunction and failure, and the neuron to die, could open the door to new pharmacological tools and to find pathways to counteract the damage that we see,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

Prior research shows that an Alzheimer’s patient’s brain accumulates abnormal clusters of protein fragments called beta-amyloid, which can be imported into mitochondria. Solesio’s lab, located in Camden’s Joint Health Sciences Center, is also working on understanding the mechanisms to eliminate the dysfunctional proteins inside mitochondria to prevent neurons from becoming impaired or dying.

Solesio’s research team includes two postdoctoral researchers, Mariona Guitart and Pedro Urquiza; a Ph.D. student, Vedangi Hambardikar; and a master’s student, Ernest Scoma. They are all working on projects focused on understanding the mechanisms driving mitochondria to dysfunction and fail in neurodegenerative diseases.

Funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Rutgers–Camden Provost’s Fund for Research, Solesio’s discoveries could be useful to other researchers studying neurodegenerative diseases, Solesio says. “Someone can say, ‘maybe by inhibiting this pathway, or by increasing this specific substance, we can control the disease.’”

Originally from Spain, Solesio was trained as a pharmacist, and then returned to college to earn a Ph.D. in neuropharmacology. She discovered a passion for neuroscience research while working at a microbiology lab. A postdoctoral fellowship brought her to New York University in 2013.

A Philadelphia resident, Solesio joined Rutgers–Camden in the summer of 2019 to expand her current research project.

Understanding mitochondrial physiology can lead to a greater understanding of many other diseases, the Rutgers–Camden researcher explains. “There are many pathologies where mitochondrial dysfunction has been described, like diabetes, some types of cancer, fatty liver pathologies, and many others.”

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