I have had a remarkable journey. I grew up in a small town about a thousand miles north of Beijing, China. I worked my way up through the Chinese system, obtaining both M.D. and Ph.D. in the best medical university in China: Beijing Medical University. I then joined Dr. Alfred Geller's laboratory at the Harvard Medical School/VA Medical Center in 2002. After 4 years training in molecular biology and gene therapy, I joined Dr. Priyattam Shiromani's laboratory in 2006 to start a new research field: gene therapy for sleep disorders. We published the first "proof of principal" paper in narcolepsy gene transfer research area in 2008. I was promoted to instructor, a faculty level position at Harvard Medical School and also that year I received my permanent resident status. In 2011, our laboratory relocated to the Medical University of South Carolina and I was promoted to assistant professor (tenure track). I am intent on developing my academic carrier in the US. I am skilled in molecular biology and have a broad overall knowledge of neuroscience. However, for me to reach my career objectives I require additional training in sleep neurobiology, as this is a new field for m. The long-term goal of this proposal is to develop a gene therapy treatment for human narcolepsy and other sleep disorders. The short term goal is to determine the specific HCRT target areas responsible for narcoleptic symptoms, and their phenotypes. This proposal will provide training in sleep neurobiology, especially narcolepsy. Training includes basic lab work under the supervision of established scientists, course work, presentations at scientific meetings, and visiting established investigators to learn about other sleep disorders and new methods such as optogenetics. This training will enable me to become an independent scientist in sleep neuroscience and allow me to be competitive in securing an independent NIH research grant (R01). Narcolepsy is a neurodegenerative sleep disorder affecting almost 1:2000 Americans. Ten years ago the neuropeptide hypocretin (HCRT), also known as orexin, was linked to narcolepsy, and deficiency of HCRT was found to be the main reason of human narcolepsy. But it is still not known where in the brain are the key targets for HCRT. This information is necessary to identify potential therapies to reverse the narcoleptic symptoms. Current treatments of narcolepsy mainly depend on pharmacotherapy which can treat some but not all of the symptoms of narcolepsy and most of these medicines have severe side effects. Our group is pioneering in the field of Narcolepsy gene therapy. We have established that HCRT gene transfer in lateral hypothalamus (LH) or other related brain areas such as Zona Incerta can correct narcoleptic symptoms in HCRT/ataxin-3 transgenic mice, a reliable mouse model of narcolepsy. Drawing on the success of this work we are proposing this project where we will construct vectors to transfer the genes for the HCRT or its receptor into specific brain areas involved in sleep-wake regulation, or stimulate/inhibit these neurons with the optogenetic method. Our strategic intent is to use gene transfer and optogenetic tools to reverse the symptoms of narcolepsy and thereby identify the brain area that regulates sleep. We will examine if such gene transfer strategies can also correct narcoleptic symptoms in aged (2y) mice. I am the only one in sleep research conducting gene transfer studies in old mice. I believe it important to identify the phenotype of the surrogate neuron that rescues the narcoleptic behavior. Such targeted therapy is being used in other clinical disorders, and my vision is that it can also be used to treat specific symptoms of narcolepsy and other disorders of sleep and wakefulness. Results of this project will serve as a strong base for discovering better alternative treatments for human narcolepsy.
We will develop a gene delivery method to transfer specific genes for the hypocretin or its receptor into hypocretin/ataxin-3 transgenic or HCRT receptor-null mice. Such a genetic pharmacology method, combined with the newest optogenetic technique, represents a neurobiological tool to understand the neural networking underlying narcolepsy, a neurodegenerative sleep disorder linked to the loss of neurons containing the neuropeptide hypocretin, also named orexin. Results of this project will serve as a strong base for discovering better alternative treatments for human narcolepsy. This proposal will work as a solid bridge towards becoming an independent investigator in sleep neurobiology and other neurological diseases.