In October, we announced the inaugural winners of the world’s largest prize program for brain research, the Rainwater Prize Program. Launched in November 2018, the Prize Program fast-tracks scientific progress by encouraging additional research into neurodegenerative diseases, attracting new researchers to the tauopathy field, and recognizing scientific achievements that lead to new, effective treatments.
In part one of this series, we introduced you to Dr. Michel Goedert, the first recipient of the Rainwater Prize for Outstanding Innovation in Neurodegenerative Research. This week, we interviewed Dr. Patrick Hsu – who was awarded the Rainwater Prize for Innovative Early-Career Scientists – to give you an exclusive look at what made this rising star a natural choice for the inaugural prize.
Dr. Hsu, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley, performed some of the earliest studies at Harvard University with CRISPR-Cas9, a technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by altering its DNA sequence. At the Salk Institute, his lab discovered RNA-targeting CRISPR systems that enabled recognition and control over RNAs in living cells. He used his new tool to target MAPT RNAs to correct splicing imbalances associated with frontotemporal dementia (FTD). At Berkeley, he plans to focus on expanding the capabilities of RNA-based CRISPR systems and study genetic defects that can cause neurodegenerative risk.
Dr. Hsu sat down with us to discuss the inspiration behind his work, what led to him being awarded the Innovative Early-Career Scientists Prize, and his hopes for the future.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Rainwater Charitable Foundation: What led you to the field of neurodegenerative disease (NDD) research?
Dr. Hsu: When I was 11 my paternal grandfather was living with us and suffering from mild cognitive impairment. We knew – and he knew – that something wasn’t quite right, and it only continued to get worse. Seeing his disorientation made a tremendous impact on me, and at an early age, I understood how devastating NDD is for patients and their loved ones. I started working in a neuroscience lab in high school, and I continued lab work throughout college to study memory with a specific focus on how we forget.
Rainwater Charitable Foundation: Can you provide additional details on the research that led to your selection as the winner of the Innovative Early-Career Scientists Prize?
Dr. Hsu: My work explores the arms race between bacteria, hosts, and age. Two versions of tau imbalance cause NDD and FTD. If we can rebalance the tau proteins using RNA CRISPR to make two new versions of tau, we can create healthy cells. By using stem cells of FTD patients and cells of healthy people to make a new RNA CRISPR system, we will be able to bind RNA to make the cells look like healthy neurons.
Rainwater Charitable Foundation: Why is collaboration important in this field?
Dr. Hsu: Collaboration is important because we all have different assumptions. By using differing perspectives, combined with new technologies being developed in other industries, researchers can begin to understand the complexity of the genome and tissues in the brain.
In this industry, everything is bigger than you. It is important for me to not just publish papers – I want my research to help increase the understanding of these diseases and how we can eventually begin to treat and cure the millions of people impacted. There is so much that goes into making the drugs that can treat and cure NDDs, but with enough people involved, our research can scale. And we can make real impact.
We are excited to honor Dr. Hsu and the Rainwater Prize Program’s other inaugural recipient at the Tau 2020 Global Conference in Washington, DC, from February 12-13, 2020. Tau 2020 is an open-registration conference, welcoming scientists, funders and all interested in accelerating neurodegenerative disease research and treatments by fostering a collaborative scientific community.
For more information on Rainwater Prize Program winners and real-time updates on the Tau 2020 Global Conference, follow the Rainwater Charitable Foundation on Twitter @RCFNeuro.