Research in Neuroscience at MUSC: An Overview

 More information related to this Podcast


Research in Neuroscience at MUSC: An Overview




Guest:  Dr. Peter Kalivas - Neurosciences/Neuroscience Research

Host:  Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry


Dr. Linda Austin:  I’m Dr. Linda Austin.  I’m interviewing Dr. Peter Kalivas who is Director of Neurosciences here at the Medical University of South Carolina.  Welcome, Dr. Kalivas.  First, just to clarify something that can be kind of confusing to understand, at MUSC, we have a Department of Neurosciences that encompasses physicians and researchers from a variety of disciplines.  Can you describe those disciplines and who the players are in the department?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Actually it’s a very new idea.  I think it might be the only situation where we’ve created this kind of academic structure in the nation.  Basically, about four or five years ago, we merged a basic research department, which previously was called the Department of Physiology and Neuroscience, and that was my department, with Neurology and Neurosurgery, which were two clinical departments.  And the goal there was primarily to enhance the ability to perform translational research.  So, up until that time, the research going on in Neurosurgery and Neurology was entirely clinical and, of course, the research in my Basic Science department was entirely basic.


Through this merger, we’ve been able to direct resources in a very targeted way to enhance translational research.  This has occurred in a number of areas that are relevant, of course, to Neurosciences.  The strongest areas are addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, movement disorders, epilepsy, and stroke.


Dr. Linda Austin:  So, just to clarify terms that are very familiar to you but may not be so familiar to somebody who’s never been in an academic health center before, you talked about clinical research and basic research as well as translational research, can you explain what those three different terms refer to?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Sure.  There’s a little bit of an open interpretation on translational.  You can ask 10 different scientists, or researchers, and they’ll give you 10 related but somewhat distinct answers to translational.  So, bear in mind that I’m giving you my own interpretation. 


Very basic research would be, for example, if I took a neuron out of a brain, put it into a dish and then looked and saw how when I activated that neuron which channels opened up on the membrane and I quantified the amount of ions that were passing across the membrane.  The question I’m asking is, how does the membrane work and how does the membrane regulate the activity of the neuron?  One can think of clinical relevance but, basically, that researcher is not very interested, per se, in curing a disease.  They’re actually interested in how this neuron works, and that’s their question. 


On the other side, a purely clinical study would be, for example, running a clinical trial.  So, there’s a new compound that’s been developed, it might be good for treating stroke, so somebody sets up a trial where they take two groups of individuals, one gets the placebo, one gets the drug, or one gets a standard of care and another one gets a novel form of care, they run these patients through and they look at outcomes and see if the drug worked or not.  So, that would be, in my mind, a purely clinical study.  Another example that goes on in our department would be trying new tools for neurosurgery, new ways to get into the brain, new ways to move tissue around, new ways to cauterize tissue.  Things like that would also be clinical research. 


Translational, in my mind, ranges between animals and people.  On the animal side, it would be having an animal model.  So, lets say that this channel that the first person I spoke about, the basic scientist, let’s say that this channel shows up in a human genomic screen as something that might be involved in epilepsy, okay?  So, somebody would take an animal model of epilepsy and mutate, let’s say, this channel in the animal model to mimic what may be happening in the epileptic.  And, in the animal model, if it produced epilepsy or something similar to what you see in the human, that would be a strong indication that somehow this channel was important in human research.


Based on that information, somebody might have known, well, you know, there’s a snail toxin that’s been used for years to inhibit that channel.  Maybe we should try to develop a compound that would be useable in human beings that would inhibit that channel, and that might be good for epilepsy.  So then they would get together with chemists and come up with analogs, screen them in the animals, find the one that worked the best with the least toxicity, ultimately move that into people and run a clinical trial.  So, that kind of translational research, in my mind, starts with the animal model, taking something that, perhaps, the basic researcher wasn’t even thinking of, epilepsy, when they made the discovery, and take something that’s been observed in patients, whether it’s a behavioral symptom or a gene that’s been altered in a certain subpopulation of people, take those two pieces of information and move them into research setting, in animal models and human patients.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Now, clearly, our Department of Neurosciences was developed in order to bring together a lot of different kinds of doctors and researchers who otherwise might not cross paths often enough to figure out those kinds of interconnections.  How do you, as the director and as the, I believe you’re the founder of the department, correct?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Yeah, along with Sunil Patel, who’s my partner in crime as a neurosurgeon.


Dr. Linda Austin:  How do the two of you go about fostering communication, dialogue, interaction,    between those disparate players?


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  I’ll tell you, it’s been a learning experience for both of us.  We, basically, grew up in completely separate cultures, the training, everything, is very isolated in every academic institution.  To some extent, the meeting ground was neurology.  There are good animal models for neurology, and that’s really where we started.  For example, one first step was to take Neurology Grand Rounds, we started inviting, once a month, internationally recognized figures in translational research, in neurology, people who’d actually done it, taken animal models and converted it into a treatment for a human disorder.


Everybody is required to attend these, from graduate students to residents, to physicians, to scientists.  And the idea is for people to start communicating and, in fact, it has happened.  We also separate luncheons that are built around our own research.  There used to be one that was more clinical research, one that was basic.  Those have now been merged.  We have a luncheon once a month where people sit down and present their own research to the faculty at large.  And, through this, ideas are born, as well as communicating or collaborating between clinical and basic researchers.  What it’s been most useful for is a younger investigator, a younger faculty member, to present some of their ideas or some of their preliminary data.  And it’s exciting to watch the senior basic scientists and the senior clinical scientists come together and help guide that person.  And often, that direction is translational. 


Really, the hope is to change the culture.  And as we all know, cultural change is slow and best initiated with younger people who are just getting started in the field.  Older people, you know, they can help, but they often already have their careers set and in forward motion.  It’s more difficult for them to change.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Dr. Kalivas, I want to talk with you about training opportunities, but let’s save that for another podcast. 


Dr. Peter Kalivas:  Sure.


Dr. Linda Austin:  Thank you so much.


If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection:  (843) 792-1414.


Close Window