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UA chemical biologists unearth cause of a rare brain disorder

May Khanna, PhD, left, uses 3D glasses to help visualize a molecule created in her lab.

May Khanna, PhD, left, uses 3D glasses to help visualize a molecule created in her lab.

TUCSON, Ariz. – Babies born with pontocerebellar hypoplasia type Ib often do not survive past one year. Born with an underdeveloped brain, infants struggle to move, feed and even breathe.

Scientists have little understanding about the biology behind the deadly disease besides knowing that a genetic mutation is implicated.

Now, researchers at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson have keyed into the biological mishap that causes stunted brain growth and, ultimately, muscle movement failure.

“We wanted to figure out the biological processes leading to the disease,” said May Khanna, PhD, UA assistant professor of neuroscience and pharmacology. “That knowledge could help us develop a drug to stop the disease progression. Right now, there is no cure.”

In a study published this fall in the journal ACS Chemical Biology, Dr. Khanna and her lab describe how the disease is caused by the failure of one RNA molecule to bind to its protein partner. The disconnect ultimately causes brain development to fail.

“It’s like a cogwheel that’s missing a spoke and no longer can turn,” Dr. Khanna explained. “You’re left with a protein that is unable to function and do its job anymore.”

The team now hopes to develop a drug that prompts the RNA molecule to bind to the protein in infants diagnosed with the disease.

While the discovery is significant, Dr. Khanna said the team’s unique approach to understanding the disease also is noteworthy.

To prove that the RNA-to-protein bind is the epicenter of the disease, Dr. Khanna’s lab created a unique molecule to cause the disease.

The molecule was designed to bind to the protein itself, interrupting the natural docking process of the RNA and, therefore, stopping the RNA-to-protein bind. When applied to lab models, the compound induced the classic symptoms of pontocerebellar hypoplasia type Ib.

“We believe we are the only ones who have done this — used a chemical approach to induce a neurodegenerative disease,” Dr. Khanna said. “It’s a bit like we created a venom, but ultimately with a positive goal to find the antidote.”

Dr. Khanna now is interested in applying the unique approach to discover the causes of other diseases.


Other UA scientists, postdoctoral researchers and research assistants who participated in the study are: Liberty Francois-Moutal, PhD; Andrew L. Nelson, PhD; David Scott; Aubin Moutal, PhD; Samantha Perez-Miller, PhD; Andrew Ambrose; Ahmed Al-Shamari, PhD; Philippe Coursodon; Eric Lyons, PhD; Mark Beilstein, PhD; Eli Chapman, PhD; Rajesh Khanna, PhD; and Vijay Gokhale, PhD.

The research project was funded by a UA Health Sciences Career Development grant, awarded to Dr. Khanna in 2014, and a grant from the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission.

About the UA College of Medicine – Tucson

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is shaping the future of medicine through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research and advancements in patient care in Arizona and beyond. Founded in 1967, the college boasts more than 50 years of innovation, ranking among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care. Through the university’s partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health-care systems in the country, the college is leading the way in academic medicine. For more information, please visit

The Center for Innovation in Brain Science (CIBS) at the University of Arizona is addressing the challenge that, in the 21st century, there is not a single cure for a single neurodegenerative disease and is focused on four age-associated neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and ALS.

© 2024 Center for Innovation Brain Science. University of Arizona Health Sciences.

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