by Xuemei Huang
It is truly a unique honor to be the first recipient of the Translational/Bridging Travel Award from the Society of Toxicology. I feel the responsibility to establish a standard for future awardees, and while I am unsure if I am up to this task, I shall do my best to begin this process.
This award actually represents a return to my scientific roots. As background, I am a board-certified neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. Yet an early part of my training was a PhD earned from the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Purdue University. Working with Professor David Nichols, I studied the mechanisms of neurotoxicity of MDMA and its effects on dopamine and serotonin systems. This started my career focus on neurodegenerative diseases and led to a fellowship with Professor Curt Freed at the University of Colorado that cemented my interest in Parkinson’s disease (PD). After finishing my internship and residency, I was honored to be able to do a fellowship in Movement Disorders at Emory University under the guidance of Ray Watts, Mahlon Delong, and Jorge Juncos. Not only did I receive wonderful training in clinical medicine, it was very exciting to be in an environment where research in the areas of my interest abounded.
I took my first faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I was able to leverage the training I had received at Emory University with the exceptional mentorship of Greg McCarthy and Martin McKeown in neuroimaging, and thus generate my first NIH award. This K23 grant became my research foundation, and in the decade since that award began, my research program has been very exciting. Through imaging, my lab has learned a great deal about the anatomical and functional changes that occur in the course, and possibly in advance of the diagnosis, of PD. During this same period of time, the Parkinson’s community became very focused on genetic causes of PD, spurred by the findings of how a few specific mutations could cause the disorder. I was greatly influenced by Honglei Chen (an epidemiologist with focus on Parkinson’s disease at NIEHS), Richard Mailman (an SOT Burroughs Wellcome Scholar in Toxicology many years ago), and Michael Flynn (an industrial hygienist) to realize that rather than having a largely genetic basis, environmental factors and our human behavioral were as critical in interacting in subtle ways with a host of genetic susceptibility genes to ultimately cause most PD. Thus, their influence and the results from many scientists (with some small contributions from my group) have dragged me back to my roots in neurotoxicology.
This communication is not the place for scientific details, but I have become convinced by the evidence that several key environmental factors, coupled with some genetic characteristics not commonly realized, interact in important ways to cause PD and possibly some related disorders. This travel award brought me for the first time to an annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology. It was particularly satisfying because it evoked my nostalgia for the wonderful basic science experiences I had in graduate school, but as importantly, it led to a discovery of new perspectives that will enrich my future research. During the meeting, I was inspired by hearing about the lifetime of achievements of the recent leaders in toxicology such as Ernest Hodgson and Curtis Klaassen. Of particular relevance to my translational efforts was my exposure to cutting-edge basic research on neurotoxicants such as manganese, paraquat, and rotenone. These experiences caused the realization that the Society of Toxicology is an important venue for me for future interactions with scientists who are likely to influence the interpretation of my own work. For these reasons, I have decided to apply for SOT membership. In turn, as someone who is expert in clinical medicine and in research translational, I hope I can in turn make a small contribution to the SOT, and thus enrich my colleagues as they have enriched me. I also intend to communicate to my colleagues in neurological venues the potential impact of research done in fields that they may consider tangential to their interests. If I can facilitate such exchanges, I feel I will have begun to repay the honor for this award.