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Muscular Dystrophy Association funding supports research into how neurons communicate with muscle cells


 Michael Francis

 Michael M. Francis, PhD

August 18, 2010

WORCESTER, Mass. — Much like an electrical current illuminates the filament in an ordinary household light bulb to emit light, neurons send chemical signals to receptors on adjacent muscle cells to excite activity, resulting in movement. A full understanding of the genes involved in this processes, however, is not known. Michael M. Francis, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has received a three-year, $330,000 grant from the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) to research the genes involved in neuron and muscle cell interaction.

Working with the microscopic worm C. elegans, Dr. Francis is examining how muscle cells respond when specific genes in the neuromuscular junction are mutated—research that may lead to more effective treatments for people with congenital myasthenia syndromes (CMS), a family of disorders that affect how neurons and muscle cells communicate. The model Francis will be studying closely resembles a specific disorder known as slow channel CMS, which causes severe weakness in infancy or childhood and progresses to paralysis and respiratory problems in adolescence.

Francis, who believes his findings could have broader implications for CMS and other neuromuscular disorders, began targeting CMS as a result of his research into underlying mechanisms that govern signaling at the neuromuscular junction. “I got into muscular dystrophy research rather fortuitously,” he said. “My lab traditionally focused most of our research on the nervous system and muscle cells. As we delved deeper into the research we discovered that a lot of the work was applicable to muscular diseases.”

Invertebrates, such as C. elegans, have comparatively simple nervous systems, making them ideal for studying complex biological processes. More importantly, many of the basic mechanisms controlling the human nervous system are also found in these organisms, whose short life cycle affords fast genetic analysis. 

“Understanding how CMS affects the biological mechanisms involved in signaling between neuron and muscle will potentially provide more general insights into these processes, which can be used to better understand neurodegenerative disorders as a whole,” said Francis. 

Francis is one of 38 research leaders who have been awarded grants totaling just over $14 million from this new round of MDA funding. Annually, MDA invests more than $40 million in neuromuscular disease research projects around the world. 

“I’m very grateful to the MDA. They have allowed me and my research team to branch out and study aspects of a disease we were not actively involved in before,” Francis said.

About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $240 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The mission of the Medical School is to advance the health and well-being of the people of the commonwealth and the world through pioneering education, research, public service and health care delivery with its clinical partner, UMass Memorial Health Care. For more information, visit