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Uncovering connections

  • Manci Li

    Uncovering connections

    PhD student Manci Li receives scholarship to present Alzheimer’s research at symposium

Manci Li, a doctoral student in the Comparative Molecular Biosciences program at the College of Veterinary Medicine, recently received a competitive travel scholarship from the National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging. 

The scholarship supports travel to the Keystone Symposium on Molecular and Cellular Biology in Breckenridge, Colo., later this month where Li will present research on the declining expression of Alzheimer’s disease-related neuropeptides in the brain’s hippocampus during natural aging. Neuropeptides play important roles in influencing neural activities, and Li’s research hypothesizes that the disruption of these neuropeptide networks is widespread in brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease (AD). 

An opportunity to share this research is especially meaningful to Li, who lost her grandfather to the disease. He was diagnosed in his seventies when Li was in high school. She recalls how he struggled with simple everyday tasks and could not remember basic things such as how many bananas he had just eaten or where he had been earlier in the day.

In mountainous surrounds, the Keystone Symposia brings together basic and clinical researchers from academic, industry, and global health sectors. Li will present at a Molecular Basis and Healthy Aging session, but she is also excited to attend a parallel track focused on mitochondrial dysfunction in diseases and aging.  

“Both aging and mitochondrial dysfunction are important aspects of AD development,” Li explains, adding that she is “excited to see what new ideas will emerge from the joint conference.”

Li’s research epitomizes the work of a comparative medicine scientist. Comparative medicine scientists leverage the biological similarities and differences among animal species to better understand the mechanism of human and animal disease. Her extensive research in chronic wasting disease (CWD), a fatal neurological disease in deer and other cervids, informs her work on the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s. CWD is caused by prions, which are abnormal, pathogenic agents that can cause neurological degeneration. 

Li is a team member of the Minnesota Center for Prion Research (MNPRO) lab working to advance diagnostics for an array of neurodegenerative diseases such as CWD. Her research efforts in CWD and Alzheimer’s work in tandem. Although there are many differences between the diseases, both involve protein misfolding and clumping.

“Prion diseases can have serious impacts on wildlife conservation, livestock production, food safety, and public health,” Li says. “More research is needed to establish how well different animal models represent human prion diseases and how applicable their findings are to wildlife conservation and public health.” 

An improved understanding of the mechanisms of CWD or AD may lead to better prevention or treatment options for neurodegenerative diseases in humans and animals. 

Early in the course of her research, Li was surprised to learn that AD could develop for decades before being diagnosed. The misfolded proteins found in its plaques and tangles can propagate similarly to that found in prion diseases. Looking for the closest thing to early diagnosis of the disease she feels is key to the development of early interventions.

Ultimately, Li says she plans to do research that “advances diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and other dementia while also finding a path of least resistance to improve the prognosis of existing AD patients.”  While optimistic about finding a cure or viable prevention or treatment options for AD,  Li says the timeline of when this could occur depends on factors such as “funding, scientific breakthroughs, cynical trials, regulatory approvals, and public awareness.”

While Li’s grandfather did not live long enough to express pride he certainly would have felt knowing that Li is one of the scientists taking steps to improve the diagnosis, prevention, treatment, or even cure Alzheimer’s, his presence will be felt as she presents her research at the Keystone Symposia.