BEAM: An Alliance Developing Therapies Targeting Brain Metabolism to Treat Disease

Brain metabolism is the process by which the brain converts nutrients into energy and small molecule signals. When there are breakdowns in brain metabolism, this can lead to serious neurological diseases including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injury. These breakdowns even have been linked to diabetes.  

Researchers of the Brain and Epilepsy Alliance for Metabolism (BEAM), a team supported by the Alliance Research Initiative, are seeking answers for how malfunctions associated with brain metabolism can potentially cause these diseases and developing therapies targeting metabolism to treat the diseases.

The Alliance Research Initiative has allowed BEAM to gather scientists and clinicians from a variety of specialties to combine their expertise for solutions. The interdisciplinary team includes faculty from the UK College of Medicine, along with the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering, the College of Pharmacy, and the College of Agriculture who studies brain metabolism in honey bees.

Since BEAM was formed, it has generated millions of dollars in grant funding for groundbreaking research. The team has already developed therapies for normalizing brain metabolism in a mouse model of a deadly childhood dementia, with those drugs rapidly moving from the bench to the bedside. Now, the team is working to replicate that success for others.

“The human brain is likely the most complex and sophisticated machine on the planet,” says co-principal investigator Matthew Gentry, PhD, professor in the department of molecular and cellular biochemistry. “So it stands to reason that scientists need to work as teams with different specialties to decipher how things go wrong with it, why they go wrong, and how to fix the problem.”

Dr. Gentry, director of the Lafora Epilepsy Care Initiative, leads BEAM with fellow epilepsy expert Bret Smith, PhD, chair of the department of neuroscience.

Eight years ago, Dr. Smith sent an email to a handful of faculty he had seen at meetings to discuss the potential of an epilepsy research working group. More than 20 people showed up to that first meeting, and this helped start the UK Epilepsy Research Center that eventually led to the BEAM collaboration.

“What that meant to me was that there were an awful lot of people that had this research interest,” Dr. Smith said. “They're chomping at the bit to try to find research collaborators. And we've continued that with BEAM.”

Dr. Gentry and Dr. Smith consider their Alliance “disease agnostic” because it has progressed from focusing on specific diseases to looking at general metabolism that binds many different diseases. Having a team with a broad group of scientists has allowed BEAM to achieve high levels of success, including an “unheard of” 50-percent success rate for grants, with many earned by junior faculty.

As of February 2021, data generated by the BEAM Alliance has been used in 43 grants with 21 funded and eight pending, including four R01s, one R61, one R35, one R41, one K08, and two R21s from the National Institutes of Health. The Alliance has also earned one from the U.S. Department of Defense, multiple foundation grants, two industry-sponsored projects, and six pending proposals.

Overall, the team has generated nearly $25 million in funding. 

“We appreciate the strong support from Dean Robert DiPaola and the College of Medicine, UK HealthCare, and the UK Vice President for Research’s office for bringing all of this together,” Dr. Gentry said.

The model for BEAM has translated to plentiful mentorship opportunities for junior faculty who can help maintain the research momentum and uncover more innovative discoveries in the future.

“I don’t think the point of the Alliance Research Initiative is to help us with our research as much as it is to lift the group as a whole,” Dr. Smith said. “The work we’re completing with BEAM was successful almost right from the start when we formed the Epilepsy Research Center eight years ago, and now it’s more successful because we’re able to reach a broader group of scientists.”

For more information about BEAM and our other Alliance teams, visit: https://med.uky.edu/alliance 

BEAM Alliance Team Members:

  • Doug Andres, PhD, Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Adam Bachstetter, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neuroscience
  • Bjoern Bauer, PhD, Associate Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Meriem Bensalem Owen, MD, Professor – Department of Neurology
  • Eric Blalock, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Amy Chen, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neuroscience
  • Brian Delisle, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Physiology
  • John C. Gensel, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Physiology
  • Matthew S. Gentry, PhD, Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Dong Dan Han, PsyD, Chief – Department of Neurology
  • Brad Hubbard, PhD, Research Associate – Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center
  • Lance Johnson, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Physiology
  • Siddharth Kapoor, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurology
  • Chintan Kikani, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Arts and Sciences
  • Sang-Hun Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neuroscience
  • Ai-Ling Lin, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Zabeen Mahuwala, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurology
  • Sally Mathias, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurology
  • Deb McGrath, Executive Director – Epilepsy Foundation for Kentuckiana
  • Brandon A. Miller, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurosurgery
  • Farhan Mirza, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurosurgery​
  • Chris Norris, PhD, Professor – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Bruce O’Hara, PhD, Professor – College of Arts and Sciences
  • Fred Odago, MD, Resident – Department of Neurology
  • Jim Pauly, PhD, Professor – College of Pharmacy
  • Thomas Pittman, MD, Professor – Department of Neurosurgery
  • Clare Rittschof, PhD, Assistant Professor – College of Agriculture, Food and Environment
  • Kathryn Saatman, PhD, Professor – Department of Physiology
  • Frederick Schmitt, PhD, Professor – Department of Neurology
  • Ashley W. Seifert, PhD, Associate Professor – College of Arts and Sciences
  • Maj-Linda Selenica, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Anthony Sinai, PhD, Professor – Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics
  • John Slevin, MD, Regular Faculty – Department of Neurology
  • Bret Smith, PhD, Chair and Professor – Department of Neuroscience
  • Pat Sullivan, PhD, Professor – Department of Neuroscience
  • Ramon Sun, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neuroscience
  • Sridhar Sunderam, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Ryan Temel, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Physiology
  • Olivier Thibault, PhD, Professor – Department of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences
  • Craig Vander Kooi, PhD, Associate Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
  • Qingjun Wang, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry​
  • Rachel Ward-Mitchell, RN, Program Coordinator – Department of Neurology
  • Tritia Yamasaki, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurology
  • Ruta Yardi, MD, Assistant Professor – Department of Neurology