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Upstate’s newest Empire Scholar to focus on Alzheimer’s treatment

Computational neuroscientist Chris Gaiteri will join the Upstate Medical University faculty in September as its newest Empire Innovation Scholar.

Gaiteri (guy-TEHR-ee) brings his expertise in computation and biology to studying Alzheimer’s disease. His focus is on identifying novel targets at the molecular level which will in turn lead to the development of better treatments.

“I try to address basically big data for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Gaiteri, who will join the Department of Psychiatry as an assistant professor. “We take levels of genes and proteins and other molecules of people with and without Alzheimer’s disease and from that attempt to find what are the key points, the molecules, that are really initiating the brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s. That’s what I think I can do very well at Upstate with the expertise of people there and in collaboration with them. “

Vice President for Research David Amberg, PhD, said Gaiteri’s approach to Alzheimer’s disease research is new.

“Basic and translational research progress towards effective treatments for Alzheimer’s has been slow. Many are starting to think this may be due to the stubborn fixation on two phenomena seen in the brains of people who die of Alzheimers: tangles and plaques,” Amberg said. “Dr. Gaiteri’s approach is very novel and powerful in wiping the slate clean and letting the biology tell us what networks may be causative versus symptomatic in the initiation and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Among those Gaiteri will connect with is Upstate’s Sharon Brangman MD, a SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Geriatrics. Brangman is one of the leading clinicians in the field of geriatrics, Alzheimer’s and she heads the state-funded Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease.

“Dr. Gaiteri’s research has an exciting and innovative focus that looks at the molecular pathways that lead to Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “He is a great addition to our research team at Upstate.”

He is Upstate’s tenth such scholar. Other Empire Innovation Scholars at Upstate are Chunyu Liu, PhD, Robert Fetchner, MD, George Holz, PhD, William Kerr, PhD, Vladimir Kuznetsov, PhD, Francesca Pignoni, PhD, Saravanan Thangamani, PhD, Mario Viapiano, PhD and Wei-Dong Yao, PhD. Overall, more than 40 Empire Innovation Scholars have joined the SUNY system statewide since the program began in 2016.

The Empire Innovation Program is a state program that supports the recruitment and retention of faculty with strong track records of research accomplishments. EIP faculty members are recognized leaders in their fields with international reputation for outstanding research, established track records of scholarly achievements, high-impact publications and significant external funding.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have recruited Chris to the EIP position,” said Steve Glatt, director of Upstate’s Psychiatric Genetic Epidemiology & Neurobiology Laboratory (PsychGENe Lab). “Not only is he one of the most thoughtful and progressive scientists pursuing new leads in fighting Alzheimer’s disease, but he is also a great mentor and a wonderful person. He will add so much to Upstate, and is a hire perfectly aligned with our university mission. We truly could not have had a better outcome to this faculty search.” 

Gaiteri is currently an assistant professor at Rush University Medical Center in Tennessee and will officially join Upstate Sept 1.

Gaiteri said for the past 30 years, research has been focused on two molecules thought to be causal for Alzheimer’s. But none of the drugs designed to prevent the disease based on these molecules actually work.

“Since we know what doesn’t work, we need to try something new,” he said. “My work is motivated broadly by the failures of the past 30 years. There are massive costs, massive emotional and financial and other costs to Alzheimer’s disease. We need to fundamentally understand the disease better.

“Everyone has some family member they know with dementia, and we see the incredible toll it takes on society,” he adds. “My mom for past 15 years has been taking care of her mother with dementia. It’s a very difficult, emotionally harrowing, full-time job. And so not just for the people with Alzheimer’s, but for their family members, this is very important to address.”

Gaiteri said his work differs from many other researchers in three main ways.

First, he focuses on distinguishing between causes and correlations, focusing on causes that drive disease in order to make those better drugs. Second, he uses molecular networks to tease out that distinction. And finally, while he is looking for disease causes, he specifically focuses on addressable causes of disease rather than purely genetics.

“I need to give someone a drug that’s going to act on the molecule that’s part of the causal pathway but it’s not the genetic component of it,” he said. “In between genetics and disease there’s a whole bunch of molecules. I’m going to find the molecule in that intermediate zone that’s still causal for disease and that’s what we are going to develop the drug for.” 

Editor: Chris Gaiteri, PhD, is currently on the faculty of Rush Medical Center in Tennessee and officially joins Upstate Sept. 1 as an Empire Innovation Scholar.