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Collaborating for Alzheimer's Breakthroughs

Neuroscientist Jefferson Kinney's work with Ruvo Center for Brain Health is improving patient care while expanding opportunities for UNLV student learning.

Research  |  Dec 12, 2017  |  By Juliet Casey
Jefferson Kinney working in the lab.

Neuroscience researcher and psychology professor Jefferson Kinney. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)

When an 81-year-old North Las Vegas man vanished overnight and was found dead from exposure a day later in Boulder City, the community raised questions about what contributed to his disorientation and ultimate demise.

The answers, published in a Las Vegas Review-Journal story at the time, came in part from UNLV psychology professor Jefferson Kinney and Dr. Jeffrey Cummings, director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Nevada. The two Alzheimer’s disease researchers are working to develop therapies to treat such brain disorders.

Their work has brought millions of dollars in research grants to Southern Nevada, including a five-year, $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to form a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in Las Vegas. And that’s expanding opportunities for UNLV students to work on cutting-edge projects while providing Nevada patients with brain disorders increased access to care.

Kinney, who has been a driving force in UNLV’s partnership with the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, was one of three people to win an inaugural UNLV Top Tier award. The award recognizes work that meets the university’s gold standard for research, education and community impact, and that helps the institution meet its goal of ranking among the top 100 American universities.

Kinney, one of three researchers on the COBRE award, and his team at UNLV focus on pre-clinical research, looking into the genetics and proteins that regulate the immune response in the brain that contributes to the core pathologies of Alzheimer's disease. They are trying to better understand the mechanisms responsible for brain disorders. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease that includes exploring the plaques and tangles in the neurons that are common pathologies in patients.

His team collaborates with Cummings’ team at the Ruvo Center to test possible treatments for the disease. Cummings’ group focuses on the clinical research, working with patients and their caregivers.

“The most exciting aspect of bringing Jeff’s work into COBRE is how we can now more precisely translate observations he and his team make in the lab to observations at the clinical level, which we make,” Cummings said. “It helps us form a more complete picture.”

And lately, that’s how most research supported by the National Institutes of Health is structured, Kinney said.

“We call it ‘translational research,’” Kinney said. “Basically, it’s having an ongoing conversation, where people working on the pre-clinical aspects and those on the clinical side are not separated anymore. It’s the best way to make progress — with discoveries coming from both sides — and it can have the greatest impact on developing treatment, which is everyone’s goal here.”

Apart from being a gifted scientist, however, Kinney stands out for recognition because of his collaborative approach, which puts education front and center, Cummings said.

 “Jeff is always looking for how to help the entire program, not just his project,” Cummings said. “In addition, so many levels of education (on both our teams) are supported in our interaction.”

Cummings said UNLV students participating in the research benefit from Kinney’s expertise and from the opportunity to work with the specialized equipment he’s acquired through the COBRE grant.

Christopher Kearney, a distinguished professor and chair of the psychology department, said UNLV’s neuroscience program has flourished in large part thanks to Kinney and his research. With Kinney chairing the neuroscience section, the department has been able to establish an emphasis in neuroscience in the graduate programs as well as an undergraduate minor.

Kinney’s dedication to student achievement has been evident in how well his students perform, Kearney noted. “Graduate students and undergraduate students working in Dr. Kinney’s laboratory have won numerous awards and have been published as presenters on posters and manuscripts over the last eight years,” Kearney said. “Dr. Kinney has also supervised several McNair scholars.”

Kinney, who came to UNLV about 10 years ago, said he was enticed by the institution’s plans to grow and become more research-focused.

“The idea of building a neuroscience program and having a role in shaping the future of this department had a lot of appeal to me,” he said, adding that he has been working to improve research facilities on campus. Kinney serves as associate chair of the UNLV Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and on UNLV’s Top Tier Academic Health Center Committee.

Kinney credits the university’s Top Tier mission — which includes nurturing community partnerships and continually developing infrastructure and shared governance — with helping the success and growth of the neuroscience program.

“Without a Top Tier initiative, our growth and success wouldn’t have happened at the scale or speed at which we’ve been able to achieve it,” he said. “Overall, it’s not just about the research, but the potential for what’s still to come.”