For Richard Daneman, the passion for understanding the basic biology of the blood-brain barrier goes back to his graduate school years in Stanford University working alongside his advisor, Dr. Ben Barres. Dr. Barres' outstanding mentoring provided Daneman with all the tools he needed to become a successful independent investigator. Now an assistant professor in the Departments of Neurosciences and Pharmacology at UC San Diego, Daneman tries to emulate all aspects of Barres’ mentoring style. From encouraging independence in his trainees to taking the time to understand their career goals, Daneman strives to provide his students with the same guidance he received when he was starting out. “I try to encourage my students to go after their own ideas and to give them the resources they need to go after what they want,” he says.
Daneman’s interest in the blood-brain barrier started when he realized that only a few people were working on what he thought was an important problem. “There was a real need to understand the basic biology and physiology of the blood-brain barrier”, Daneman explains. For him, understanding the basics holds the key to better treatments for brain diseases.
He defines the blood-brain barrier as a unique set of properties present in the blood vessels of the brain, but absent in the blood vessels of any other organ in the body. These collective properties help the brain function properly and protect it from disease. “The blood-brain barrier is not really one thing. One common misconception is that the blood brain barrier is either on or off, when in reality it’s a whole series of properties”, Daneman explains. These properties include proteins known as tight junctions that connect the cells that line the blood vessels forming the barrier, as well as transporters that can either act as gatekeepers to prevent the entry of unwanted molecules or that help deliver specific nutrients to the brain. “To really understand the blood-brain barrier you have to understand all of those properties.”
His work has significantly contributed to our knowledge of the blood-brain barrier. His group found that the blood-brain barrier forms early during embryonic development, before astrocytes are present. This was a surprising finding because it was believed that astrocytes had the power to induce formation of the blood-brain barrier. Daneman identified pericytes as the brain cells that drive its formation and showed that many of its properties appear before astrocytes make their entrance.
Daneman’s research interests have expanded from studying the basic cell and molecular biology of blood-brain development to understating why and how the barrier becomes dysfunctional during disease, and how to prevent it from breaking down. “We want to understand whether the mechanism of blood-brain barrier breakdown varies with different brain diseases, and how we can stop the breakdown from occurring.” Understanding the basic mechanism through which the blood brain barrier becomes dysfunctional can also help us understand how we can bypass the blood-brain barrier to deliver therapeutic drugs into the brain.
Dr. Richard Daneman has been an ASPET member since 2016. He will receive the Early Career Independent Investigator Award at the Division for Neuropharmacology’s Annual Meeting in San Diego on Monday, April 23, 2018 from 6:00 pm – 6:30 pm.
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