Husband-wife team conducts ambitious brain research at UMDIn a tidy, nondescript laboratory on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, a husband-and-wife team from Germany is performing research that may one day lead to better success treating epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
In a tidy, nondescript laboratory on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, a husband-and-wife team from Germany is performing research that may one day lead to better success treating epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
Bjorn Bauer and Anika Hartz moved to Duluth from North Carolina’s Research Triangle six years ago and formed the Bauer-Hartz Blood Brain Barrier Group, building a lab and a research team from scratch under the auspices of the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy.
They want Duluth to be as familiar in their field as any of the major research centers.
“Our next goal is really to place Duluth on the map for blood-brain barrier research,” said Hartz, 36, who speaks fluent English with a rich German accent.
They’re off to a good start, having brought in millions of dollars of grant money to support their work. And Hartz so impressed the university that she was one of a handful of faculty to receive the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship, a two-year award designed to enhance the careers of the U’s most promising junior faculty, in the words of a news release.
It’s a big deal, said Paul Ranelli, interim chairman of the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Pharmaceutical Sciences, who noted that the College of Pharmacy has had a Duluth presence for only 10 years.
“To have this kind of recognition and these great researchers here is important growth for us,” said Ranelli, who was chairman of the search committee that brought Bauer and Hartz to Duluth.
Recruited to duluth
The blood-brain barrier is composed of the highly specialized cells that separate the body’s bloodstream from the brain. Bauer and Hartz, who met at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, both were steeped in study of the blood-brain barrier before they came to Duluth. Bauer, 40, has been researching the subject for 15 years and Hartz for 10. They came here from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina.
In 2007, several schools were recruiting Bauer for their faculty, but Minnesota seemed most receptive to the needs of a husband-and-wife team, Hartz said.
“They actually listened to me and said: ‘What do you need for your career?’” she recalled.
They chose the U of M’s offer to come to Duluth, where Bauer joined the College of Pharmacy as an assistant professor. Hartz spent three years in post-doctoral studies on the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus before winning a faculty position with the College of Pharmacy, also as an assistant professor.
Bauer already was researching the blood-brain barrier’s relationship to epilepsy when they came. Duluth was the only place where Hartz would have been able to continue her ongoing research on the blood-brain barrier and Alzheimer’s. They now are collaborating on additional research involving brain cancer.
The epilepsy research focuses on how the barrier, in protecting the brain, also keeps anti-epileptic drugs from getting in, Hartz said.
The approach in Alzheimer’s research is different. When the barrier is performing properly, it removes from the brain a protein called beta-amyloid that has been associated with Alzheimer’s. When the barrier is dysfunctional, the beta-amyloid accumulates in the brain.
Hartz’s breakthrough came three years ago, when she was lead author of a study using mice. The study found that treatment with a steroid-like chemical would activate a receptor in the brain and increase production of a protein in the brain barrier known as P-glycoprotein, a National Institutes of Health news release explained. That’s the protein that carts beta-amyloid out of the brain.
The news release touted the study, saying, “Researchers may be one step closer to slowing the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Outside of the lab
Hartz said Alzheimer’s disease is so big and complex that no one treatment likely will be sufficient. But she’s hopeful all of the research the group does will one day lead to practical application against diseases, she said. Otherwise, “it might be useful information from a scientific point of view, but not from a patient’s point of view.”
To keep the patients in mind, the research group — now consisting of three full-time and five part-time personnel in addition to Bauer and Hartz — gets involved in community activities. For the past three years, the group has participated in the Polar Plunge, raising money for Special Olympics. Bauer is a spokesman for a long-term American Cancer Society, and the group has participated in fundraising walks with Alzheimer’s and epilepsy groups, getting to know victims of the diseases along the way.
“We have learned a lot from patients with epilepsy, (from) caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients,” Hartz said. “We love to be involved in that way.”
In spite of days in the lab that can start as early as 4 a.m. and continue into the evening, Bauer and Hartz are busy at home, too. Their children are ages 4, 2 and 6 months.
Although they still have family and friends in Germany, having their children here has made Duluth feel more like home, Hartz said.
“When we first came here, the first two years, it was all about getting the lab up and running,” she said. “But now with the kids, it kind of balances things out.”
Considering that Hartz has helped bring more than $4.4 million in grants for the research in Duluth, the monetary amount of the McKnight Land-Grant Professorship is small — $65,000 over two years, with the possibility of another $30,000 in the second year. Its real value, Hartz said, is time. She’ll be freed from some of her teaching and committee responsibilities so she can spend more time in research.
Bauer said that while many researchers are being forced to cut back, their group is about to hire two additional post-doctoral students for full-time work. But with much of their grant money coming from the National Institutes of Health, sequestration could make for a tighter budget down the road, he said.