Prestigious US medical institute sponsors Lancaster researcher

Dr Benedetto at HHMI Janelia with the diSPIM microscope built by his host Dr Hari Shroff which he is using for his research
Dr Benedetto at HHMI Janelia with the diSPIM microscope built by his host Dr Hari Shroff which he is using for his research

Lancaster researcher Dr Alexandre Benedetto has been selected as a sponsored visiting scholar at the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the US.

The HHMI Janelia Farms is a world-leading institution with an exceptional research setup and global reputation for advancing fundamental research in the biosciences.

It is hosting Dr Benedetto for six months and supporting his research with $50,000. He aims to collaborate with leading researchers at the HHMI to study brain dynamics during extreme stress, which can shed light on brain death processes.

Dr Benedetto, from Lancaster University’s Faculty of Health and Medicine, said: “What we know is that death and extreme stress processes lead to the demise of organs and tissues, and if we understood how it happens, we could slow, delay, or prevent it.

“This would be potentially useful to extend surgery time windows for frail individuals and improve donated organ and tissue preservation. It will also enable better informed, more accurate and timely declarations of death.”

The HHMI Janelia Farms offers state-of-the-art advanced bioimaging equipment, analytic tools, model systems and collaboration with other leading researchers from around the world.

“Essentially, I will be performing whole brain imaging in worms, where we can track the activity of all brain neurones individually as the worms experience death. My research has already identified brain processes that are actively engaged when worms die, meaning that death is at least in part a “brain decision”, and I am trying to understand how that “decision” is made, and what neurones are required to execute it. Knowing that will potentially allow us to design interventions to delay, slow or even halt death in worms, which might translate into animal and human health if conserved brain pathways are found to be involved in the death process in other animals.”

His research uses worms which are complex enough to recapitulate most of the biological processes of vertebrates.

“For this particular study, there are other very good reasons to work with worms: we would not expose people or vertebrate lab animals to extreme stress due to ethical considerations, and we can image the whole worm brain activity in great depth, knowing what each neuron is and does throughout the experiment. A less well-known reason that makes these worms a great model to study death processes is that they glow blue when they die, so we can easily know how far along the death process worms are as they die.”

Since 2007, Janelia has hosted more than 410 visiting scientists from 23 countries. Since 1978, more than 30 scientists supported by HHMI have won a Nobel Prize in their field.

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