OHSU’s Vollum Institute is a scientific powerhouse, home to some of the world’s top minds dedicated to basic neuroscience research – that critical first step in developing new treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders. Thanks in part to significant philanthropy, one lab at the Vollum has been unusually prolific, and it’s paying off.
Eric Gouaux, Ph.D., is a Vollum senior scientist and principal investigator. His lab studies the molecular structure and function of chemical synapses – the all-important junctions in our brains that allow neurons to exchange signals. Those synapses are fundamental to all our actions, from thought to movement. Over the past several months, the Gouaux lab has published multiple groundbreaking findings. One study showed how the six most common antidepressants known as SSRIs interact with the protein that transports mood-elevating serotonin to the brain. Another major study published in the journal Nature focuses on proteins in nerve cells called NMDA receptors. All of this work is helping to lay the groundwork for new, faster-acting treatments for depression and anxiety disorders.
These recent publications are the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the Gouaux lab has accomplished. The team has also conducted pioneering research in how dopamine – which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers – is transported. These insights increase scientists' understanding of mood disorders and how drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines disrupt the brain’s normal functioning. The team's pace of discoveries about the complex workings of the brain is almost unheard of; Gouaux alone has 117 publications, and is an established star in his field.
“Even though Eric is relatively young, his research has been cited more than 23,000 times,” says Marc Freeman, Ph.D., director of the Vollum Institute.
Gouaux’s research has unusually broad impact on several areas of neuroscience. “Different from most scientists who work in this field, who specialize in just a single family of these proteins, the breadth of Eric’s work is without precedent," says Mark Mayer, Ph.D., scientist emeritus at the National Institutes of Health.
“Eric is also exceptional in that he is at the forefront of each of the fields in which he works. His work, with rare exception, is published in the most important journals in the field," Mayer says.
"These journals are highly selective in the papers they accept for publication, and there is fierce competition amongst scientists for the limited space available, which reports on the most important and exciting advances of interest to a broad audience of scientists, health professionals, and teachers in higher education.”
Visionary investment from a former venture capitalist
Gouaux is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator who came to OHSU in 2005 from Columbia University. As an up-and-coming scientist in the early 2000s, he received a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and a Searle Scholar Award. In 2010 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences – one of the ultimate achievements an American scientist can earn. While he receives support through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and NIH grants, he credits investment from two former Oregonians in helping his lab take new leaps in research.
Bernard and Jennifer Lacroute, who owned the WillaKenzie Estate winery until 2016, have visited the Gouaux lab and have great regard for the team’s basic research into how cells interact at the molecular level. Their support beginning in 2015 has helped Gouaux do high-risk, high-reward work.
Bernard Lacroute is no stranger to science, and his respect for research runs deep. Before his career in winemaking, he studied plasma physics with a NASA fellowship at the University of Michigan. Later he went on to become a top executive at Sun Microsystems, eventually becoming a partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, a top venture capital firm.
Lacroute says that although he supports multiple areas of research in the health sciences, he has a personal interest in finding better, more effective treatments for depression. He has been impressed by the Gouaux lab’s ability to create momentum in that field.
“Advances in health science have to come from pure research,” Lacroute says. “Less funding is typically devoted to fundamental research because the outcomes are more uncertain and longer term. Yet it is absolutely needed.
“The majority of the inventions that have changed our society came from basic science, whether from scientists like Marie Curie, Tesla, Einstein and many, many others. It is fundamental and it takes time.”
Investment from the Lacroutes has made all the difference, says Gouaux.
“Their support has been absolutely essential to allow us to do high-risk, high-reward work that would be impossible by any other means,” he says.
Gouaux underscores how helpful it is to have donors who understand the level of investment needed to undertake research, as well as the importance of risk-taking. “They have been wonderful to work with, and their support really has been a godsend.”
Scientific methods in basic science change rapidly, and donor support has helped the Gouaux lab stay at the forefront of technology. Gouaux says his lab carried out structural studies using x-ray crystallography in the past, but the field has changed considerably in the last three to four years.
“Everything is moving to cryo-electron microscopy,” Gouaux says of a new, more advanced – and much more expensive – means of characterizing biomolecular structures. “The Lacroutes’ support has helped us to make this transition, and without it we would have had a much more difficult time.”
Catching the attention of more donors like the Lacroutes is crucial to building momentum at OHSU. "We would love to meet with additional philanthropists who are interested in funding basic neuroscience" Freeman says. "We're at a very exciting point where donors can make an incredible impact."
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