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Featured Scientists

Every few months, FARA will introduce one of our researchers to you.

Feature articles include their area of research, the focus of their work and how they are helping us to achieve our goal- an effective therapy, and eventually a cure for FA.


 

Myriam Rai

Myriam-RaiName: Myriam Rai

Title: PhD Since 2002, I have been working at the Experimental Neurology Laboratory at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Brussels, Belgium. I am currently starting my new job with FARA as a Director of Global Relations and Initiatives.

What got you interested in FA research? My journey in FA started with Massimo Pandalfo. After spending an hour in his office, I remember leaving with the original reprint of the Science paper describing the GAA repeat expansion in FA. The next morning I decided to go for a PhD on FA. I was quickly introduced to the FA community: scientists, clinicians, advocacies, and of course persons living with FA.

What do you see as your primary responsibility as the Director of Global Relations & Initiatives? I was always impressed by FARA’s work: the scientific conferences, the fundraising activities, the grant management… When Jen Farmer and I discussed the opportunity to work together for a global approach towards a cure for FA I realized the challenge to putting together more synergy but overall, its value. My primary responsibility will be developing relationships with non-US key stakeholders: scientists, clinicians, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, patient advocacy organizations and government agencies. I hope to help to advance FARA’s research priorities on a global scale and accelerate research towards a cure for FA.

Marek Napierala

marek-napieralaName: Dr. Marek Napierala

Where do you work? My laboratory is located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.

How long have you been working on FA and who was the first fellow FA researcher you met? I have been working on repeat expansion diseases for the past ~ 25 years and focusing on FA for the past 18 years. The first researcher I met in the field was Dr. Robert D. Wells, who then was heading the Center of Genome Research Institute of Biosciences and Technology Texas A&M University in Houston. He was working on various repeat sequences, including GAA repeats. At the time (1995), we did not know that these repeats are expanded in the FXN gene in people with FA.

What got you interested in FA research? I was interested in repetitive DNA elements even prior to the discovery that expanded GAA repeats are the mutation causing FA. The mechanism of how unstable repeat sequences expand from a few repeats to hundreds and even thousands intrigued me when I was a graduate student and during my early career as a postdoc. Then, this interest evolved into a fascination with understanding the connection between expanded DNA and decreased frataxin expression (i.e. mechanism of epigenetic silencing). This was certainly influenced by a collaboration between my mentor at the time (Dr. Wells) and Dr. Joel Gottesfeld (Scrippts Institute), whose group discovered and defined epigenetic changes at the FXN gene.

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work? When I started as a postdoc working on FA, we did not know the mechanism causing the transcriptional block in FA. We knew that the atypical DNA shape adopted by long GAA repeats was a part of it, but we also suspected that this was not the only reason. We were, and still are, puzzled by the unusual properties of these repetitive DNA sequences that enable them to grow (i.e. increase number of repeats).

Dr. Joy Cavagnaro

Joy CavagnaroName: Dr. Joy Cavagnaro

Where do you work? Access BIO -Boyce, VA (President and Founder)

How long have you been working on FA and who was the first fellow FA researcher you met? 2017; Dr. Mark Payne

What got you interested in FA research? Ron Bartek

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work? Interaction with regulatory authorities to educate them about the disease and gain a better understanding of acceptable biomarkers to assess both safety and efficacy in order to facilitate clinical development.

Bernard Ravina

Bernard RavinaName: Bernard Ravina

Where do you work? Praxis Precision Medicines, Cambridge, MA

How long have you been working on FA and who was the first fellow FA researcher you met? I have been working on FA for about 20 years. I started working on clinical scale validation studies with Kurt Fischbeck and team at NINDS/NIH (Neurogenetics branch).

What got you interested in FA research? I was generally interested in mitochondrial disorders and therapeutics for mitochondrial diseases. I thought FA was a great example and one where we were more likely to find treatments. Then I met the team of researchers and the family community, and I was hooked.

What question or challenge were you setting out to address when you started this work? My initial involvement was in preparation for trials of Idebenone and other antioxidants.

Bronya Keats

Bronya KeatsName: Bronya Keats

Where do you work? I work voluntarily with FARA as the Chief Research Officer and also with the Australian Friedreich Ataxia Stem Cell and Gene Therapy Consortium, Melbourne. Previously I was a Professor of Genetics at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans (LSUHSC, 1982-2008).

How long have you been working on FA and who was the first fellow FA researcher you met? I have been working on FA since I moved to New Orleans almost 40 years ago. The first FA researcher I met was Dr. Andr Barbeau (Montreal Clinical Research Institute), who led the Quebec Cooperative Study of Friedreich’s Ataxia, initiated in 1974. In 1983 he participated in our FA clinic in Lafayette, LA (the center of Acadiana).

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