According to the American Stroke Association someone in America has a stroke every 45 seconds, and every 3 minutes someone dies from a stroke. That makes stroke the third leading killer of adults in the United States and a major cause of neurological morbidity in patients.*
But neuroscience researcher Byron Ford has other reasons for studying stroke. Ford, an associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and an investigator at the Neuroscience Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) in Atlanta, Georgia, says that when he came to the historically black MSM four years ago he chose stroke research as the area he wanted to concentrate on for two reasons: The medical school recognized the racial and regional disparities of the disease and placed stroke high on its list of illnesses to study, and the field combines the several prongs of his varied academic training and interests. In short, it was an ideal fit for his background and his institution.
"African Americans have a 2 to 3 fold higher incidence of mortality from stroke compared to white counterparts," Ford says. "And this region--from Louisiana to North Carolina, including Tennessee--is known as the ‘stroke belt.' Compared to the rest of the nation, it has the highest incidence of stroke. When I came to MSM, I wanted to build something that would incorporate my background in cardiovascular [research] and neuroscience, and stroke was the perfect venue for that."
Finding His Niche
Ford never intended to become a researcher. Like many undergraduates majoring in biology, he wanted to be a physician, but one of his undergraduate mentors, Waneene Dorsey, suggested he participate in a summer research program at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. "I had no idea what research was," explains Ford, a native of Grambling, Louisiana. The summer program changed that. "Once I got exposed to science, I decided that's what I was going to do."
After completing his B.S. in biology at Grambling State University--he finished in 1989--Ford decided to do his Ph.D. at the institution that sparked his interest in research, the historically black Meharry Medical College. As a graduate student in James Townsel's lab, he studied the regulation and function of choline receptors, which are responsible for the transport of cholinergic neurons. Ford finished his Ph.D. in 1995 and began to look for labs that did receptor work but with a different focus. Gerry Fischbach's lab at Harvard Medical School offered the perfect opportunity.
The Fischbach lab had just discovered neuregulin, a molecule that increased nicotinic receptors at the neuromuscular junction. When Ford joined the lab, Fischbach and his staff were trying to determine whether neuregulin could regulate the muscarinic receptor. Around the same time, knockout mice lacking neureglins and their receptors had been developed; the animals died in utero from heart failure. This result led to Ford's interest in cardiology.
"I looked at what neuregulin was doing in heart development and heart disease," Ford explains. "[Since] all of my background was in neuroscience, I started training myself [in] cardiology." During the course of his training, he learned that whatever neuregulin was doing in the heart, it may have been doing in the blood vessels as well. Soon, Ford had morphed into a cardiovascular biologist. He began seeking a new focus that would fit all his interests.
Expanding the Therapeutic Window for Treatment
As PI at MSM, Ford takes what he learned during his training and applies it to stroke--caused by blockage or rupturing of arterial blood flow leading to or in the brain--and atherosclerosis--hardening of arteries over time due to fat-deposit build-up on their inner lining--research. Ford's lab studies the neural and vascular consequences of these illnesses separately. His lab has shown that neuregulin--the protein Ford worked on as a postdoc--seems to reduce neuronal death if given after a stroke and expands the therapeutic window of treatment for stroke victims. Ford has also found that neuregulin--at least in animal models--can prevent atherosclerotic plaque development, possibly because both conditions may share similar molecular mechanisms.
Being a PI
Ford is busy balancing his successful research career with the other duties incumbent on a professor, such as teaching, attending committee meetings, writing grants, and mentoring the members of his lab team. "Right now I have two postdocs, two Ph.D. students [who] are close to finishing, three technicians, and three undergrads, so I spend most of my day helping them look at and interpret data and plan the next set of experiments," he says. He would like to spend more time doing research himself, but right now his priority is training his students.
Funding is a challenge for any academic research scientist. Ford's field is no exception, though funding for stroke research is healthy, he says. Currently Ford is co-PI on one R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is also funded by NIH's Institutional Stroke Program Project and was recently awarded another R01 grant on which he is the sole PI.
The relative health of the funding environment in his field is a fairly recent development, says Ford. Until recently, "people and resources were being drained away from stroke [research] because a number of drugs had gone into clinical trials and all of them failed." Confidence in stroke therapy was lost even at the major pharmaceutical companies until "a few years ago, the drug tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), was proven successful in breaking down clots, so stroke-based research has become popular again." But funding in any field is cyclical and the current health of stroke funding could easily become occluded.
Advice for Students
Ford advises undergraduates considering careers in neuroscience to take a neuroscience class if one is offered at their institution in addition to a few key courses: cell and molecular biology, genetics, and probably most importantly, biochemistry. Ford considers biochemistry one of the most useful courses one can take in science.
For graduate students, although it's important to become technically competent, Ford believes the most important thing is to read the scientific literature carefully. "I tell my grad students that [they] should probably spend more time reading the literature than doing experiments, because it helps [them] plan better experiments," he says. "You don't have to spend as much time troubleshooting if you put more thought into experimental design, and reading these articles help you do that." It's an approach--planning well, working hard and efficiently, and avoiding mistakes--that has served him well in his own career.
* "Top Ten Leading Causes of Death", taken from the U.S. Center for Health Statistics, 2002, Reviewed by William Rice, M.D.
Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.