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Monk receives Weaver award for neuroscience research

Honor supports efforts to understand, treat multiple sclerosis

November 21, 2016

Kelly R. Monk, PhD, an associate professor of developmental biology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received a Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar Award from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The award supports research into understanding multiple sclerosis (MS) and seeking ways to treat the neurodegenerative condition.

Monk studies genes that govern the development of neurons in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. In particular, she is concerned with the development of myelin, the layer of insulation that speeds the propagation of electrical signals through the wiring of the nervous system. In patients with MS, the immune system attacks this insulation, slowing the signals and causing the progressive difficulties with movement and other symptoms associated with MS.

“It is a great honor to be named a Harry Weaver Neuroscience Scholar,” Monk said. “With this award, we will be studying two new genes that we have discovered to be critical for the proper formation of myelin in the central nervous system.”

In past work, Monk identified a gene — called Gpr126 — that governs the formation of myelin in the peripheral nervous system. The study identifying Gpr126, along with subsequent work by Monk and other groups, demonstrated that a finding related to myelin formation in zebrafish could be relevant in people with dysfunctions of myelin formation. Now, Monk is working to apply similar techniques to the central nervous system.

Monk and her team recently identified two genes involved in myelin formation in the central nervous system. They identified these genes by screening large numbers of zebrafish with different mutations that cause abnormal myelin formation. One mutation caused too much myelin to form around the wiring of the central nervous system. And a mutation in a different gene caused the opposite problem — in these mutant zebrafish, myelin was almost totally absent in the central nervous system.

“Although it is unclear how these two genes function, we suspect they may represent excellent targets for future therapeutics that promote repair of damaged myelin,” Monk said. “One goal of our project is to understand how these genes control the formation of myelin during the development of both zebrafish and mice. A second goal is to find drugs that target these genes in ways that may stimulate the growth of new myelin.”

The Weaver Award is given to early-career faculty who are beginning independent research programs in areas related to MS. The award may be given annually but only to candidates who are sufficiently focused on MS research. The award supports Monk and her research program with a grant totaling about $500,000 over five years.

The award is named for Harry Weaver, PhD, who served as the National MS Society’s director of research from 1966 to 1977, and who was known for encouraging young investigators to pursue careers in basic and clinical MS research.