November 18, 2020

Advancing Stem Cell Therapy in Alzheimer's Disease: Q & A with Lisa McGinley, PhD

Research Assistant Professor Lisa McGinley, Ph.D., is directing stem cell therapy research that will provide a desperately needed treatment for Alzheimer's disease patients.

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month. Lisa McGinley, Ph.D., the Handleman Emerging Scholar, leads Alzheimer's disease research for the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies.

Originally from Galway, Ireland, Dr. McGinley has been under the tutelage of Eva L. Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., since 2013. Having faced Alzheimer's disease in her own family, Dr. McGinley is motivated to revolutionize the disease’s treatment by using stem cells to maintain brain function. 

Galway overhead with Dr. Lisa McGinley
Dr. McGinley flying over Galway city.

What county of Ireland are you originally from and what led you to the National University of Ireland in Galway? Do you get to visit home very often – what do like to do there?

I’m from Galway city, which is on the west coast. NUIG is my local university so it worked well for me to go there. I usually go home once or twice a year. When I’m home, I like to go flying with my dad, who is a flight instructor at the local flying club. We also enjoy going for drives along the Clare and Galway coasts and stopping at interesting places along the way like The Burren or the Cliffs of Moher.

Was biotechnology your first choice as a major, or was it something you discovered as you went along? What made biotech and later regenerative medicine the right fit for you?

I’ve always loved biology and was particularly interested in the healthcare applications of biotechnology, including pharma, gene therapy, regenerative medicine and the concept of personalized medicine. I also liked the idea of incorporating language and business into my science degree.

What led you to the University of Michigan?

I was first introduced to Dr. Feldman through a mutual contact at Emory University. Her research interests aligned with my own and I was drawn to the highly translational nature of her work. Dr. Feldman happened to be looking for a scientist to lead the stem cell projects in her laboratory and the rest is history!

Who have been your most impactful mentors? Why?

Dr. Feldman has been my mentor at the University of Michigan since I joined her laboratory in 2013. From the outset, she gave me the academic freedom I needed to become an independent scientist, while continually providing her guidance and support. Importantly, she also provided varied training beyond the lab bench, including grant writing, budgeting, personnel management and science communication. I’m particularly grateful for her guidance in the area of funding – a cornerstone of all research – where I learned from her perseverance and tenacity.

Dr. Bob Nerem, my mentor at the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech, often said that “research, like life, is a people business,” which I think is important to remember. He also regularly shared his Rules of Life – one of my favorites is “If you encounter a closed door, simply look for another door that might be open; life is filled with a lot of paths and doors to walk through, don’t waste time on a door which is closed, let the rock in your path be a stepping stone.”

Drs. Eva Feldman and Lisa McGinley
Drs. Eva Feldman and Lisa McGinley

Do you have any personal connections to neurological diseases that have inspired your work?

Yes, like many people these days, I do. My aunt lived with Alzheimer's disease for years before she passed away in 2019. I also have two other family members who were diagnosed more recently with the disease. Seeing how it affects the entire family is deeply saddening. I would say that it motivates me to keep going in my work because I know how much it would mean to patients and families.

What part of Alzheimer’s disease research are you most focused on?

My broad research goal is to develop a stem cell therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. There are many aspects to this including safety, dosing, treatment time, immunosuppression, therapeutic mechanism, etc. Currently, we are working on identifying optimal dosing and immunosuppression using non-invasive magnetic resonance and bioluminescence imaging to track and monitor the stem cells after transplantation.

How does identifying cognitive dysfunction risk help with treatment?

For any disorder, I think the sooner you can intervene the better. So if we know who is at risk of developing cognitive dysfunction and begin treatment early, this will likely lead to better patient outcomes.

How does stem cell therapy work to preserve brain function or reverse dysfunction? How can you determine its effectiveness?

Stem cell therapies can work in multiple ways – for example they can form synapses with host cells, modulate inflammation within the disease environment or produce neurotropic growth factors. In this regard, a cell-based therapy may be advantageous over a single-target small molecule approach. We determine effectiveness, or efficacy, by performing tests of memory and learning, measuring brain levels of amyloid or tau proteins, and assessing other disease-related pathologies in the brain.

What’s the future for your work?

The ultimate goal is to begin human clinical trials. We’ve seen some promising results from our studies to date, but we have a lot more work to do. As part of our NIA Alzheimer’s Drug Development Program funding, we are performing additional preclinical studies required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety and therapeutic value of stem cell transplantation. When completed, we will begin the process of an Investigational New Drug (IND) application to move our stem cell therapy to clinical testing.