Inside AFAR
Inside AFAR

Insights, Views, and Interviews

Jan 23
4:23 pm

Grantee Spotlight Interview: Congcong He View MoreBACK

AFAR’s grant programs in the biology of aging are central to our mission to support and advance healthy aging through biomedical research. At leading institutions nationwide, our grantees hard work, ingenuity, and leadership are advancing cutting-edge research that will help us all live healthier, longer. AFAR grantees are making this the age of aging better.

In this Grantee Spotlight interview, Congcong He, PhD, shares what inspired her to enter the field of aging research and what impact she hopes her research will make thanks to AFAR’s support.

Congcong He - PhD

Assistant Professor  

Northwestern University

The New Investigator Awards in Alzheimer's Disease - 2017

What inspired you to pursue aging research?
Unlike most pathological conditions, aging is an inevitable process for every individual. Thus, to me, how to maintain quality of life during “healthy aging” is a tempting long-term question to ask, more meaningful than to prolong lifespan per se. Because Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the major age-related disease that prevents elderly populations from healthy aging, I want to understand the mechanisms of the disease, and based on the mechanism to develop a potential cure. With recent progresses made by many researchers and my own lab, I think it is an exciting and hopeful time to pursue AD research.

In your view, what does AFAR mean to the field, and what does it mean, for you, to receive an AFAR grant now?
AFAR is an important organization that brings together researchers studying diverse questions in aging, and provides invaluable supports to both junior and established scientists on promising ideas that are at embryonic stages. As an early career scientist, my long-term goal is to fully understand how neuronal function and animal behavior are regulated by autophagy, a lysosomal degradation pathway. The AFAR award gives my team the chance to enter the aging field, and allows us to produce essential data to transform a pilot idea into a project competitive enough for federal funding. I also look forward to the unique opportunity to interact with peer and mentor scientists in the aging field at AFAR annual meetings.

What’s exciting about your research’s potential impact?
It has been puzzling how intracellular degradation (autophagy) regulates the pathogenesis of AD. If our study is successful, we will reveal whether certain proteins involved in autophagy represent new druggable targets in AD. Through a drug screen using an AD mouse model, we will identify novel autophagy-modulating compounds that can restore memory. We hope to demonstrate novel mechanisms for autophagy inducers in the prevention of AD, and deliver new lead compounds for the development of AD drugs.

In three sentences, how would you describe your research to one of your grandparents?
Accumuation of toxic proteins during aging leads to Alzheimer’s disease (AD); yet human brain also produces some natural factors that can enhance memory and prolong brain cell survival. We aim to charaterize a molecular “switch” involved in brain self-cleaning (autophagy) that both increases the disposal of toxic proteins that cause AD, and augments the ability of our brain’s natural protective molecules to combat memory loss. Using this information, we can develop drugs that turn on this switch to treat AD.