Texas FreshAIR to host annual conference ‘Grand Challenges in Neuroscience’

Annie L. Zhang

UT neuroscience researchers and biomedical industry leaders will come together on Oct. 6 and 7 to promote brain research at Texas FreshAIR’s fifth annual conference.

Texas FreshAIR — AIR stands for Academia Industry Round Table — is a University of Texas Systems initiative dedicated to building relationships between UT institutions, faculty, students and fellows and professionals in the biomedical industry.

“The mission of the 2016 conference is to highlight UT and Texas cutting-edge science and research in a particular area and to put the UT System, its institutions and Texas on the national map in the life sciences and technology arena,” said Beena Koshy, assistant vice chancellor for Innovation and Industry Relations at the University of Texas System.

The initiative, launched in early 2013, spans all 14 UT institutions and was founded on the premise of multi-institution collaboration and cooperation, according to Koshy.

“The Texas FreshAIR conferences are unique meetings that bring together UT System faculty from around our 14 UT institutions with key leaders from industry,” Koshy said. 

Koshy said the conference will include information on products and services that benefit society, as well as partnerships with industry representatives. She said all of this helps to fully realize the benefits of the biomedical research and technological advances carried out across the UT system.

This year’s FreshAIR conference is titled “Grand Challenges in Neuroscience.”

“Brain health is a particular focus for the UT System and is aligned with Chancellor William McRaven’s ‘Quantum Leap on Brain Health’ imperative,” Koshy said. 

The Office of the Chancellor compared the imperative to a Manhattan Project for neuroscience.

“[The Brain Health Imperative seeks to] maximize and connect all the cutting-edge science going on at UT System institutions — both in academics and healthcare — to better understand the brain and advance research to prevent, diagnose, treat and cure the diseases that are doing so much damage to so many of our fellow Americans,” McRaven said in a statement.

Over 70 speakers in both academia and industry will lead panel discussions and keynote addresses that will focus on the latest developments in traumatic brain injury, neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, addiction and other key areas.

Among those speakers will be UT professors Kristen Harris and Stephen Martin.

Harris, a neuroscience professor, is currently researching molecular changes in the brain that are responsible for alcohol dependence and molecular sites affected by alcohol in the brain.

“The basic idea [of my talk] is that alcohol dependence changes gene expression networks in the brain,” Harris said. “This molecular reprogramming involves multiple genes, and correcting this network problem requires new computational approaches to ‘drug the network’ or select treatments that will at least partially correct the changes.”

Martin, a chemistry professor, will be presenting a new method that could have applications in drug development. 

“We’re working with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injury, neuropathic pain, alcohol dependence and ALS,” Martin said. “We found that [modifying] a particular receptor has effects no one knew about before, and so I’m going to talk briefly about that receptor and biological target.”

Although the FreshAIR conference covers many aspects of neuroscience, McRaven’s UT system-wide initiative to prevent, diagnose, treat and cure neurological diseases remains the overarching link between the different sessions and tracks of the conference, Koshy said. 

“The biggest challenge is that [we need] more effective drugs that [combat] neurodegenerative conditions and diseases and also neurological disorders,” Martin said. “It’s a huge unmet need — it’s a bigger problem than cancer.”