UVM Scientist Wins Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Grant to Tackle Neurodegenerative Diseases

Larner Scientist Seeks to Advance Neurodegeneration Research

February 22, 2024 by Angela Ferrante

Scientist gazing into a microscope surrounded by eerie green light
Larner College of Medicine scientist Osama Harraz, Ph.D., M.Sc., gazing into a microscope (Photo: David Seaver)

BURLINGTON, VT—Larner College of Medicine scientist Osama Harraz, Ph.D., M.Sc., and his colleague from the University of Maryland (UMD), Thomas Longden, Ph.D., are recipients of a prestigious Collaborative Pairs Pilot Project Award from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) Neurodegeneration Challenge Network (NCDN). This award supports pairs of investigators and their teams in exploring innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to tackling critical challenges in neurodegenerative diseases and fundamental neuroscience.

Harraz and Longden’s project will focus on the reprogramming of blood flow to satisfy changing needs in different brain regions, a process the team refers to as vascular signaling plasticity. Certain brain regions are engaged in energy-intensive processes—such as complex cognitive functions like learning or memory formation—and therefore require more blood flow to sustain their functions. This is analogous to a flexible irrigation system delivering water to a field of crops depending on where growth is needed most.

“This is an exciting opportunity for Drs. Harraz and Longden to advance our scientific understanding of neuroplasticity across the lifespan,” said Kate Tracy, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Larner College of Medicine. “Results of this innovative research will have implications for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases and recovery from cerebrovascular and traumatic brain injuries.”

The CZI’s Phase 1 Pilot Project Award empowers collaborating teams to explore new, transformative ideas related to neurodegeneration. Harraz, Longdon, and their supporting researchers at UMD and the Larner College of Medicine’s Harraz Lab will receive a total of $200,000 over 18 months to support their project. Successful progress in this phase may lead to eligibility for a Phase 2 Pilot Project Award, which could grant the chosen Collaborative Pairs teams an acceleration award of $1.6 million over four years.

The impact of blood flow in the brain extends beyond the provision of energy; Harraz, who is the Bloomfield Early Career Professor in Cardiovascular Research and an assistant professor of pharmacology at the Larner College of Medicine, recently showed that the associated forces with flow are sensed through mechanical interoception. While a link between vascular signaling plasticity and brain blood flow sensing has not been established, Harraz, Longden, and their respective teams will delve deeper into this possible connection and its impact on neurodegeneration. Their goal is to demonstrate whether manipulating blood flow sensing and vascular signaling plasticity could potentially slow, stop, or even reverse the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

Guests viewing artwork hanging on walls in Larner

Harraz Lab members (left to right) Mohammad Elmahdy, Ph.D., Grace Ebner, Emily Xin Rui Lim, Ph.D., Osama Harraz, Ph.D., M.Sc., Michael Ippolito (Photo: David Seaver)

Fsculty scientist looking over the shoulder of a team member

Osama Harraz, Ph.D., M.Sc., with Harraz Lab member Emily Xin Rui Lim, Ph.D. (Photo: David Seaver)

“By unifying two distinct and challenging research areas—vascular plasticity and blood flow sensing—this project will unveil a novel dimension of brain plasticity which without the combined expertise of our groups would remain hidden.”

— Osama Harraz, Ph.D., M.Sc.


“By unifying two distinct and challenging research areas—vascular plasticity and blood flow sensing—this project will unveil a novel dimension of brain plasticity which without the combined expertise of our groups would remain hidden,” said Harraz, who is also a member of the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health (VCCBH). “We are excited to bring together two teams of emerging scientists to test out-of-the-box ideas that could lead to breakthroughs and novel therapies that are much needed to combat neurodegeneration.”

Collaborative Pair Awardees must hold a Ph.D. or M.D., hail from separate institutions, be classified as early- or mid-career investigators, and provide a statement on diversity and equity, among other criteria. Awardees are selected based on the quality of the scientific team, the extent to which the collaboration leverages complementary strengths, and the potential of the work to advance neurodegeneration research or fundamental neuroscience.

“Just a few short years ago, Dr. Harraz started as a beginning assistant professor funded and mentored by our center,” said Mary Cushman, M.D., M.Sc., University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Vermont Center for Cardiovascular and Brain Health. “He is now a rapidly rising star in the neurovascular field, and we can’t wait to see his further progress.”

Awards such as this exemplify the impact of private funding in advancing science and medicine. Unlike public funding avenues, private institutions like CZI enable researchers to explore cutting-edge concepts beyond their usual investigations. They are more inclined to take risks and invest in unconventional or high-risk, high-reward projects that public agencies might find too speculative. This support for innovative ideas fosters scientific breakthroughs and drives progress across various fields.

More information about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) Neurodegeneration Challenge Network (NCDN)