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Thursday March 30th

Meet these UNC professor friends trying to cure Alzheimer's together

Todd Cohen (left) and Jonathan Schisler (right) share a laugh in Saladelia Cafe in Marsico Hall on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Cohen and Schisler work together to improve research on Alzheimer's disease.
Buy Photos Todd Cohen (left) and Jonathan Schisler (right) share a laugh in Saladelia Cafe in Marsico Hall on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Cohen and Schisler work together to improve research on Alzheimer's disease.

Two UNC professors met over a cup of coffee six years ago. Now, they are conducting research together to cure Alzheimer’s Disease.

Jonathan Schisler is an assistant pharmacology professor who studies proteins in the heart, and Todd Cohen is an assistant neuroscience professor who studies proteins in the brain. 

“We just got together one day and said, ‘Hey, we have similar interests,’” Cohen said.

Cohen said he knew of Schisler when they were both students at Duke University, but the two only formally met when they became professors at UNC. They decided to work together after realizing how similar their research interests were. 

Since then, the pair has received a grant for $3.1 million from the National Institute on Aging to research potential cures for Alzheimer’s Disease. To do so, they turned to a subject they both know well — proteins.

A common protein known as tau can become misshapen and lead to a buildup of unhealthy cells causing Alzheimer's Disease in the brain and cardiomyopathy in the heart, Cohen said.  

Schisler and Cohen found that a protein known as CHIP can refold tau and possibly prevent the unhealthy build-up of proteins, which is the subject of their current research.

“There’s lots of common ground between what we work on, even though they’re completely different organs,” Schisler said.

Though Schisler and Cohen study different parts of the body, both have backgrounds in biochemistry. Cohen said the differences in their studies complement each other.

“On paper, there’s a lot of silos that exist in the School of Medicine within departments,” Schisler said. “But we have a lot of these centers and institutes that draw on people from all the different departments, whether it’s the neuroscience center or the heart institute or Lineberger — they bring in all the people that have common research interests despite whatever their official department affiliation may be."

Zoe McElligott is an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies and has worked with both Schisler and Cohen in the past.

McElligott said Schisler and Cohen often meet with other faculty members, including her, to swap ideas and help with work-related things like grant writing or research.

“This level of congeniality doesn’t always exist in all places,” McElligott said. “I think that’s one of the nice things about UNC.”

McElligott said both Schisler and Cohen have contributed to the positive environment that exists at the University.

Cohen said this environment has been helpful for his research. 

“I think it’s just a good environment where there are not a lot of obstacles to getting together,” Cohen said.

Outside of their work testing treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease on mice, Schisler and Cohen have become friends.

Cohen said he and his coworkers frequently visit Schisler’s house.

“My lab goes over there and we play ping pong,” Cohen said.

The grant Cohen and Schisler received for their study lasts for five years. Once that time is up, they plan to apply for another five-year grant to continue their Alzheimer’s research.

When asked about the goal of their future work, Cohen responded immediately, coffee mug in hand:

“Cure diseases.”

Schisler nodded in agreement.

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