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Paul Greer named Rita Allen Foundation Scholar

Organization supports early-career biomedical scientists pursuing promising research

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

July 18, 2018
  Paul L. Greer, PhD
 

Paul L. Greer, PhD

Paul L. Greer, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine, has been named a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar. Dr. Greer will receive up to $110,000 annually for up to five years to support research into Alzheimer’s disease.

“As this work represents a completely new line of investigation for our lab that is largely orthogonal to what I did as a postdoctoral fellow, it’s difficult to obtain federal funding to support this nascent project,” Greer said. “The generous support of the Rita Allen Foundation will hopefully allow us to develop our research to the point where we can secure NIH funding and explore this promising line of investigation.”

Since 1976, the Rita Allen Foundation has invested in more than 150 biomedical scientists at the early stages of their careers, enabling them to pursue research directions with above-average risk and promise. Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are selected based on their creative, promising approaches to investigating crucial problems, raising the potential for significant breakthroughs in their fields of study. The scholars were nominated by major research institutions and selected by the Rita Allen Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee. Greer said his interview before the committee afforded him the opportunity to get feedback that will benefit his lab’s work moving forward.

“These exceptional young scientists are pushing the boundaries of knowledge,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “Their research will uncover and illuminate critical functions in the body and inform our understanding of disease treatment and prevention. Their work is as inspiring as it is important.”

The Greer lab is broadly interested in the fundamental questions of how animals sense and interpret chemical signals to generate appropriate organismal responses and how these processes are disrupted in human neurological disorders. One particularly important chemical sensing cell is the microglia, the resident immune cell of the brain.

With support from the Rita Allen grant, the Greer lab’s research will focus on a set of mutations in a family of genes knowns as Ms4as.

“One particularly compelling set of new mutations that have recently been identified are in Ms4as. Although not much is known about the function of Ms4a genes, we recently discovered that these genes encode chemoreceptors, proteins that have evolved to sense extracellular chemicals and signal the presence of these chemicals to the cells in which they are expressed.” Greer said. “Intriguingly, we have further found that Ms4a genes are expressed in microglia, which have been reported to play a crucial, although still mostly unclear, role in Alzheimer’s disease pathogenesis.”

Greer hopes to elucidate the role Ms4a genes play in microglia under physiological conditions, to understand how mutation of Ms4a genes affects microglial function and ultimately to explore how these mutations might contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Because Ms4a genes encode chemoreceptors, proteins that are druggable targets, our hope is that this work will ultimately lead to the generation of new therapeutic approaches for treating this horrible neurodegenerative disorder,” Greer said.

Greer is the first UMass Medical School scientist to receive the honor and one of seven scientists nationally named to the 2018 class of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars.