Penn State

Crowdfunding for a cure: Penn State professor wants to change brain treatment

John Lin washes cell cultures for immuno staining in the Chen lab. Gong Chen is the Verne M. Willaman chair for Penn State life sciences March 30, 2015.
John Lin washes cell cultures for immuno staining in the Chen lab. Gong Chen is the Verne M. Willaman chair for Penn State life sciences March 30, 2015. CDT photo

Crowdfunding: It’s how people raise money for stuff that matters to them. Help this art center get the down payment for a new home; give money to support the family of a fire victim. But a Penn State researcher wants to see it do something big.

He wants it to help him save people’s brains.

A crowdfunding campaign kicked off Monday to help Gong Chen with a new technique to treat brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, strokes and more.

He got some help from Penn State men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers, who opens the video on the campaign’s page talking about how he lost his dad to Alzheimer’s.

“It’s such a challenging disease. I don’t think anybody really quite can put their finger on it unless they’ve gone through it,” he said. “Watching him go through this, you feel helpless.”

Chen wants to make sure no one else has to stand by and watch a loved one suffer that way.

The science, he says, is “revolutionary.” When a brain experiences disease or injury, glial cells can form a scar barrier to protect healthy tissue. At first, this is a good thing, stopping the spread of an injury. Later, though, they can cause problems. Neurons can’t pass messages across the scar, and that means some things get lost.

Chen said that in the past, doctors have tried to fix the problem surgically. It hasn’t worked, sometimes with tragic results.

“What we did was inject a neurofactor,” he said. “When expressed in glial cells inside the glial scar, it can turn into functional neurons. We are turning the glial scar back to neural tissue.”

And that means neurons in one area can communicate where they couldn’t before, hopefully giving back memory, movement and other things lost due to illness.

But to get from the science to the treatment, Chen needs money.

He has a grant from the National Institutes of Health. He has private donations but still needs more. The budget for his project requires about $1 million a year. He says he is 10-20 years away from being able to see his work in use, but the more money that is raised could turn 10 years into five.

“If we can get more research support and hire more people, we can see if we can cut that in half,” Chen said. “There are just so many people who need help. Someone wrote me yesterday, volunteered to be in clinical trial, but we aren’t there yet. There is huge demand. I’d like to move faster.”

The starting point for the crowdfunding campaign is just $50,000, but Chen said the need is far greater, closer to $5 million, with this first push a starting point.

“We need a lot more support,” Chen said. “I’d like to deliver therapy faster. Every year we cut, we can save hundreds, thousands of lives.”

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