Carnegie Mellon University
February 20, 2017

Computational Biologist Part of All-Star Alzheimer’s Collaboration

Two-year project aims to translate genetic findings into therapies

By Byron Spice

Pfenning Lab

Andreas Pfenning, assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Computational Biology Department, is part of an all-star research team that aims to find new ways to translate genetic findings into new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.

As part of an international research team assembled by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, Pfenning will use computational techniques to potentially identify thousands of genetic sequences that hold therapeutic potential for Alzheimer’s. He also is developing new biological techniques to test the function of those human DNA fragments in the brains of mice.

The two-year, $4 million project, Collaboration to Infer Regulatory Circuits and to Uncover Innovative Therapeutic Strategies, or CIRCUITS, includes Pfenning and eight researchers from MIT, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Sheffield and the University of Luebeck.

“We are looking for those parts of the human genome that are active in the brain cells of Alzheimer’s patients,” Pfenning said.

Researchers are confident they have identified 20 or 30 such genetic sequences associated with this form of dementia, he noted, but have reason to believe hundreds or even thousands of additional segments may be involved.

Identifying and evaluating so many candidate DNA segments will require new methods for analyzing extremely large datasets, Pfenning said, as well as new methods for testing that DNA in the brains of mice.

“In the past this has been done one gene at a time and it has not been done in a systematic way,” he said. “My lab will be creating new techniques that bridge analytics and experimentation.”

The Computational Biology Department is part of CMU’s School of Computer Science. The Cure Alzheimer's Fund, founded in 2004, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research with the highest probability of preventing, slowing or reversing Alzheimer's disease.

Pfenning also is part of BrainHub, CMU’s neuroscience initiative, and Morgan Wirthlin, a BrainHub post-doctoral fellow, performed some of the preliminary work on this research.