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NIH Grant Provides $3.55M for Memory Disorder Treatment Research

Chemistry professor’s research could one day make a difference for those suffering from memory loss

Posted in: Homepage News, Research, University

David Rotella remembers when the progression of his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease prompted his family to make a difficult decision. 

“One of the things that triggered my grandmother’s move to assisted living, she was out driving and she forgot how to get home. She called my father in tears and said, ‘I don’t know where I am.’”

It’s a story that has stayed with Rotella, and now he is hoping to make a difference for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other diseases and disorders that affect memory. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a researcher-initiated research grant to Rotella, who is professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry,  and also the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Chemistry at Montclair State University, and two collaborators, Michelle Kelly of the University of South Carolina and Charles Hoffman of Boston College, to investigate inhibitors of an enzyme called phosphodiesterase 11 (PDE11) for treatment of memory disorders.  

The five-year grant will provide a total of $3.55 million for the collaborators to contribute key expertise and skills that are essential for the project. Rotella’s team at the Margaret and Herman Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical Life Sciences at Montclair State is responsible for making new molecules that will be tested first in Hoffman’s lab for their ability to inhibit PDE11 and other related enzymes. If the new molecules meet a set of criteria, Kelly’s lab will test the compounds in animal models to assess their effectiveness. 

The group is even slightly larger,” says Rotella. “We are also going to be working with scientists at Temple University in Philadelphia and at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.”

Rotella points out that age-related loss of memory remains a disease for which there are no effective treatments, and his team’s research represents a new avenue for discovery.

“This enzyme hasn’t been investigated in any real way in the past,” says Rotella, who calls Kelly “one of the very first, if not the first, to suggest that this enzyme could play a role in memory.” 

Rotella credits Montclair State professor and Sokol Institute Director John J. Siekierka for fostering an environment for collaboration. “It’s common in the pharmaceutical industry, but has only recently become more common in universities,” says Rotella. “This research requires a team. Many skills are required.”

Rotella says the University’s labs and support are “really helpful to get these ideas off the ground and running. The environment at Montclair State to carry out this research is an important foundational item that contributes to success.”

This is a return to memory disorder-related research for Rotella. 

“Prior to coming to Montclair State, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry and spent a good amount of time there looking for drug candidates to treat Alzheimer’s,” he says, noting that Alzheimer’s doesn’t just impact memory. “There are other components, but something that could help treat the memory defects would be beneficial – primarily because it would improve the patient’s quality of life in a significant way.”

“The funny thing about research is we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You follow the data. You have a plan from the outset, but you let the information and results from your work guide the next steps. What we have to do is find a way to turn it into something more concrete. We are going to do everything in our power to be successful.”

While the hope is that the research will further the understanding of memory loss, the NIH grant in itself supports the University’s continued growth as an R2 Doctoral Research Institution.

“This grant is exactly the right direction for our University, to increase the research endeavor in the life sciences and move into the National Institutes of Health funding portfolio,” says Vice Provost for Research Scott Herness. The R01 support mechanism from NIH is the ‘gold standard’ of research grants. This grant, coming after our R2 status, really helps affirm us as a public research institution.”

College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings calls Rotella “an academic role model who excels in both research and education. His work in the Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical Life Sciences establishes Montclair State University as a premier research partner for pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Dr. Rotella is also known for his dedication to training our diverse students to be the next generation of scientific leaders.”

Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann