By Bekah McBride
Aging is part of the human experience, but not every experience is the same. Progressive neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s disease present many challenges to patients and their families, and researchers like University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Samuel Neuman are using stem cells and regenerative medicine to find a solution.
As a biochemistry and biomedical engineering undergraduate student, Neuman is early in his career, but he is already a seasoned lab member, working in Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center (SCRMC) faculty member Marina Emborg’s Preclinical Parkinson’s Research Program. There, he has been deeply involved in research that has not only earned him an opportunity to coauthor a soon-to-be published paper, but he was also recently awarded the 2022 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding undergraduate students who are planning to pursuing careers in science.
While Neuman has received many accolades, he says that the driver behind his work is the desire to improve quality of life during the aging process.
“I work in a long-term care facility, I volunteer to help elderly patients, and what I want to do in science is going to revolve around diseases of aging,” Neuman shared. “Aging itself is scientifically challenging to understand and worthy of introspection on a personal level. Anyone with a family member who has had a neurodegenerative disease can attest to how this changes things.”
To combat these challenges, Neuman is centering his studies around regenerative medicine, which focuses on regrowing or repairing damaged tissues. His current research focuses on evaluating whether injected gene editing vehicles, which are capable of editing neurons within the site of injection, can affect other brain regions connected through the neural network. Understanding this will help researchers to know whether therapies such as nanocapsules or viral vectors can have therapeutic benefits for neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.
In this specific case, Neuman is looking at the efficacy of glutathione-cleavable polymer nanocapsules developed by the lab of UW–Madison College of Engineering Professor Shaoqin (Sarah) Gong in collaboration with the lab of UW–Madison College of Engineering Professor Krishanu Saha. These nanocapsules contain gene editing reagents and are hypothesized to edit neurons when injected into the striatum, a part of the brain that is critical for voluntary movement control. While this technology is still in its early stages, Neuman is proud to contribute to this work.
“It’s nice to be able to talk about how this science could affect diseases of degeneration and aging,” Neuman shared.
While Neuman has always been fascinated by the brain and aging, he didn’t always know he would go into biomedical engineering or study regenerative medicine. In fact, when he was attending high school in DeForest, Wisconsin, he was undecided in his collegiate plans. But a research opportunity with the Department of Anesthesiology changed all of that.
“It was a nice introduction that helped me get my foot in the door for future research experiences and show me what sciences means,” Neuman said. “It made me see that the brain is pretty cool. Just the idea that billions and billions of neurons can coordinate their efforts to make things that we perceive as consciousness and emotions is amazing.”
After that experience, Neuman declared his major in biomedical engineering and reached out to Professor of Medical Physics and Director of the Preclinical Parkinson’s Research Program, Marina Emborg who works with the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. Neuman shared his interests and his experience with Emborg and before too long, he was working in her lab.
“Sam reached out to me the summer before starting at UW–Madison,” Emborg said. “His scientific curiosity and enthusiasm were precious, and I invited him to join my lab.”
Neuman added, “I was really attracted to the complexity of the neuroscience that they worked with, and I really liked their model organisms.”
As part of his work with nanocapsules at Emborg’s lab, Neuman is now involved in research on genetically targeting the Amyloid Precursor Protein (APP), a protein whose encoding DNA sequence can carry mutations that can possibly trigger Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, Neuman will be working with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this summer to study how water transport across plasma membranes can be used to indicate cellular metabolic activities.
In the future, Neuman plans to attend graduate school, but for now he is focusing on his undergraduate education, his research, and his work with the Student Society for Stem Cell Research (SSSCR). Neuman is currently the outreach coordinator for this student organization which promotes stem cell research in the community and fosters interest in stem cell research at the undergraduate level.
Through his work in the lab and in the community, Neuman hopes to educate people on the benefits of regenerative medicine and the importance of conducting this novel research that may have a significant impact on the future of aging.
“I think it’s worth studying,” said Neuman. “There isn’t anything quite as human as aging.”