Kassandra Ori-McKenney's March of Dimes Early Career Award Supports Neuronal Development Research

Assistant Professor Kassandra Ori-McKenney, recipient of the Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award. David Slipher/UC Davis
Assistant Professor Kassandra Ori-McKenney, recipient of the Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award. David Slipher/UC Davis

A two-year, $150,000 research award from the March of Dimes organization will enable Assistant Professor Kassandra Ori-McKenney, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, to further explore cell structure and how that structure affects brain development.

The Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award will support Ori-McKenney’s foundational research of the DYRK1A enzyme and could potentially lead to more effective treatments for the disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome and microcephaly.

“There’s already targeted drug treatments against the DYRK1a enzyme, so we think it's essential to understand what it does, what happens when it's targeted and the different developmental processes to which it contributes,” said Ori-McKenney.

The DYRK1A enzyme is especially powerful — and subsequently harmful if mutated — because of its ability to act as a molecular switch, turning other proteins on and off or changing their localization. These switches are important during normal brain development, so having too much or too little of them can abnormally affect how the brain forms.

“All of the major contributions of this kinase seem to be during the neuron developmental stages in utero,” she said. “It seems to be incredibly important during that stage and can lead to a lot of neurological alterations.”

There’s very little known about the DYRK1A enzyme’s cellular interaction in during the prenatal development stages, she said.

“If you have too much of it or too little of (DYRK1A), it leads to a variety of different diseases. So we focused, specifically for the March of Dimes, on the regulatory pathway because there may be ways to target that,” Ori-McKenney said.

Ultimately, the study of the enzyme relates specifically to what inspires Ori-McKenney most about science – the cytoskeleton. DYRK1A can distort the cytoskeleton, a framework structure which provides cells with their shape. In neuronal cells, this is the key building block of how a neuron forms and maintains its shape.

“I’m so interested in the building blocks that come together and come apart and direct certain processes,” she said. “I’m fascinated at the protein level and at the molecular level with what’s really controlling neuronal development. Because once we figure that out, we can understand things so much better on the cellular level.”

And gaining this understanding lays the foundation for real human impact, said Ori-McKenney.

“I have the best job in the world,” she said. “I get to talk to people and formulate ideas and new directions, and it’s just a constant discussion of what can we explore, what can we figure out and how can we relate this — in my particular case — to neuronal mental disease?”

The March of Dimes funds research and programs to improve the health of babies by ending premature birth, birth defects and infant mortality. The Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award supports young scientists embarking on their independent research careers.