Jeffrey Kordower to lead ASU's fight against neurodegenerative diseases

March 4, 2021

Arizona State University has announced the appointment of Jeffrey Kordower as the founding director of the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and endowed chair as The Charlene and J. Orin Edson Distinguished Director at the Biodesign Institute.

For more than 30 years, Kordower has been a faculty member at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where he was the Alla V. and Solomon Jesmer Professor of Neurological Sciences. His pathbreaking investigations into the underpinnings of neurodegenerative disease have made him a leader in the field and his ambitious plans for the NDRC promise to make the facility an internationally recognized center of excellence in this highly diverse research space. Jeffrey Kordower is the founding director of the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center and endowed chair as The Charlene and J. Orin Edson Distinguished Director at the Biodesign Institute. Download Full Image

Kordower’s interests include the study of gene and stem cell therapies, disease pathogenesis including the morphological and molecular changes during the course of neurodegeneration, learning and memory, and aging. He has also been a pioneer in the field of neural transplantation techniques.

He has conducted innovative studies on Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease and has a particular passion for Parkinson’s research and related disorders. He has explored these illnesses in great depth, describing his findings in over 400 research papers, edited books and book chapters.

“It’s with immense excitement that we welcome Jeff to our Institute,” said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute. “We anticipate his efforts will complement the existing research strengths of the NDRC, ultimately transforming this center into a global powerhouse of new ideas and bold solutions for these devastating ailments.”

A stealthy and relentless foe

A suite of human diseases, known to progressively degrade the brain, have been among the most devastating in all of medical science. Such neurodegenerative disorders include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, the two most prevalent afflictions, as well as many other neurological ailments.

These diseases have exacted a pitiless toll on patients and caregivers and threaten to overwhelm health care systems without improved methods of early detection, better therapeutics and preventive measures. The establishment of the NDRC therefore answers one of the most urgent needs facing society.

Many factors, from genetics to environment, contribute to these still mysterious diseases, but the greatest risk factor for all of them is age. The issue of neurodegenerative disease is particularly acute in Arizona, where over 1 million people over the age of 65 currently live. This population expected expand to 2.4 million by 2050.

Nerve center

Kordower describes the new appointment as a dream job: “The only job I want is to build an internationally recognized neurodegenerative disease research center from the ground up and I’m confident that with the resources ASU has provided, is providing and will likely provide in the future, that's a very attainable goal,” Kordower said.

To further these ambitions, Kordower draws on his extensive experience in pioneering basic research, clinical trials and clinical care and far-flung industry partnerships. (Research from Kordower’s lab has already resulted in seven clinical trials.)

In the immediate future, Kordower plans on five new faculty hires, though he expects that over time, the NDRC will grow well beyond this.

“You need to have representation for all the major neurodegenerative diseases, so you need someone who's an expert in Alzheimer’s, in Parkinson’s, in ALS, maybe in multiple sclerosis. But then you also need people who will bridge all of these disease-related silos, including experts in inflammation and immune responses and expertise in misfolded proteins which are common for many degenerative diseases.” 

Quest for answers

Finding safe and effective treatments for neurodegenerative diseases has been a daunting challenge for medical science, with many promising efforts and billions of dollars in research investments and drug development yielding few successes. It is clear that radically new thinking will be required to overcome this stalemate.

Kordower’s research is on the forefront of one such innovation, the introduction of dopamine-producing cells into regions of the brain damaged by Parkinson’s disease. Indeed, he and his colleagues were the first to demonstrate that grafts of dopaminergic cells can survive, innervate and form synapses in patients with Parkinson’s disease. This was a major milestone, overturning long-held assumptions that the brain could only lose, but never gain, functioning neurons over time.

He has also been among the first to intensively study misfolded proteins capable of seeding the brain and spreading from cell to cell. The findings come from studies showing the development of inclusions of the protein α-synuclein, known as Lewy bodies, appearing in grafted tissue. These intriguing new discoveries imply that the whole range of neurodegenerative disorders may be thought of as “prion-like” diseases.

Another area of active research for Kordower addresses an ongoing hurdle in the treatment of neurodegenerative disease, the inability to reach targets in the brain with therapeutic drugs due to the blood-brain barrier. Recent studies have shown that this boundary between the circulating blood and the extracellular space of the brain can be temporarily and selectively opened, providing an entryway for drugs to reach the brain, through the use of low frequency, focused ultrasound.

A new era begins

Recognized as an outstanding scholar and teacher, Kordower is the recipient of many prestigious awards and appointments. He has been recognized as a Director’s Scholar and Professor of Neurodegeneration at the Van Andel Institute. He received the Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s Award of Excellence in Medicine, was a John Douglas French Fellow for the Study of Alzheimer's Disease and won the Bernard Sandberg Memorial Award for Brain Repair.

Kordower has served as a consultant to both the FDA and numerous pharmaceutical companies, including Takeda, Biogen, A.P. and others, and has served on numerous editorial boards including as an associate editor for Neurobiology of Aging. He completed his undergraduate and graduate education at Queens College, the City University of New York and was a postdoc at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. He has also received an honorary Doctor of Science from the City University of New York.

“There are people out there suffering with neurodegenerative diseases and we will do everything to try to help them,” Kordower said. “If you want an overarching goal of my center, it’s this: Every decision will be laser-focused on how we can help patients.”

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU


22 patents, 2 researchers, 1 university

National Academy of Inventors names ASU faculty as senior members

March 4, 2021

Inventing critical devices that monitor health, unraveling the secrets of potentially game-changing proteins, building connections with clinical partners and nurturing the future STEM workforce — that’s all in a day’s work for Arizona State University researchers Erica Forzani and Pamela Marshall.

To recognize their contributions to science and society, the National Academy of Inventors has named these researchers as senior members — two out of a class of 63 for spring 2021. time-lapse photo of car lights going beneath ASU bridge at night Download Full Image

According to the NAI, this honor is given to acknowledge those who produce technologies with real societal impact, foster a spirit of innovation within their communities and educate the next generation of inventors.

“These researchers not only contribute to the community of innovation at ASU, they also embody an inventive and entrepreneurial drive to bring solutions out of the lab and into the world,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of the ASU Knowledge Enterprise. “With their focus on developing technologies that make a difference in people’s lives, they reflect the goal in our university’s charter of assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities we serve.”

A monarch of metabolic monitoring

Erica Forzani

Associate Professor Erica Forzani has contributed to the development of many important medical devices and technological advances during her career.

Chemical engineer Erica Forzani has contributed to the development of many important medical devices and technological advances during her career, particularly in the area of monitoring patients’ metabolisms.

Among the achievements that have earned her NAI senior member status are the first mobile device capable of detecting inflammatory biomarkers for asthma, the first point-of-care mobile sensor for real-time detection of carbon dioxide, the first mobile metabolic rate tracker, and a device that detects ammonia in biological fluids to diagnose signs of urea metabolism problems, liver disease and other diseases.

In total, Forzani holds 10 patents, 11 patent applications and three transferred intellectual properties and has written more than 90 peer-reviewed publications in science, engineering and medical research journals.

An associate professor of chemical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Forzani is also director of the Medical Devices and Methods Laboratory in the ASU Health Futures Center and a mentor for the MedTech Accelerator, a flagship program of the Mayo Clinic and ASU Alliance for Health Care. In addition, she works with the Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors in ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

Forzani leads the company Breezing, which arose from sensor technology she helped to create. The company’s device enables health care professionals to obtain metabolic data used to design personalized nutritional, weight and obesity management strategies.

Co-founding the company is one of the ways she is fulfilling a goal to take her career beyond the classroom and the lab.

“I’ve always wanted to work in a hospital and to help implement what I am teaching and what my research is producing,” said Forzani, who has been given the prestigious title of Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor. She teaches in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Fulton Schools.

Forzani has also co-founded Sequitur Health Corporation with fellow Fulton Schools associate professor of chemical engineering Marylaura Lind Thomas and Mayo Clinic physician Dr. Leslie Thomas. The ASU spinoff venture focuses on medical devices for disease diagnosis with biomarker detection in body fluids. The technology is based on two ideas for which Forzani has been granted intellectual property rights.

One of her inventions has played an especially critical role over the last year. Developed in collaboration with Dr. Bhavesh Patel, a Mayo Clinic physician, it prevents dispersion of aerosols and moisture droplets in the air. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals have used the device to help stop the spread of the disease and provide a safer overall environment for health care workers and patients.

Colleagues who recommended Forzani for NAI senior membership noted that her collaborations with Mayo Clinic physicians have spanned from pulmonary care, exercise physiology, intensive care and nephrology to gastroenterology, cancer therapy and genetics. She has also worked with Barrow Neurological Institute on improving care for people with dementia.

Proteins and STEM dreams

Pamela Marshall

Professor Pamela Marshall’s work focuses on the discovery and design of new drugs for complex diseases.

Pamela Marshall is an expert in cell biology and pharmaceuticals whose work focuses on the discovery and design of new drugs for complex diseases. She holds 12 U.S. patents and is a professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, part of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on ASU’s West campus.

Marshall is part of a multidisciplinary team that includes Carl Wagner and Peter Jurutka, both faculty in the same school. The team focuses on modulating a protein inside cells called the rexinoid X receptor (RXR). This critical protein is a promising target for anti-cancer drugs and therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In fact, the team’s work suggests that RXR may have a key role to perform in many different diseases.

“Together we have developed, synthesized, and tested almost 100 rexinoid compounds that we are studying for use to potentially treat cancer and neurodegenerative diseases,” Marshall said.

In addition to her game-changing research, Marshall is also paving the way for future generations of STEM researchers. In her lab, she has individually mentored over 100 undergraduate students, including many underrepresented students.

Supporting underrepresented populations in STEM and helping stimulate institutional change are a central part of Marshall’s role at ASU. She has worked with various programs, including the STEM-focused TRIO Student Support Services Program on the West campus, which supports first-generation students, low-income students and students with disabilities by providing mentoring and networking opportunities.

More recently, she became the director of an NSF-funded S-STEM Scholarship Program for low-income STEM majors, which partners with community colleges to offer professional development and award scholarships that support students throughout their higher education journeys. She is also a co-director of an NIH-funded summer program in environmental health science for underrepresented students in STEM who wish to explore careers in research. Termed the New College Environmental Health Science Scholars, this program helps connect interested students with research experiences and professional development.

Additionally, Marshall makes an effort to bring innovation into her classroom. In her upper-level course, “Fundamentals of Pharmacology,” she goes beyond teaching about drugs to focus on how the most effective drug discovery and design process is interdisciplinary and creative, helping to train the next generation of inventors.

Written by Joe Kullman and Mikala Kass