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Faculty Spotlight: Laurie Sanders, PhD

Friday, March 10, 2017
LH Sanders

The origins of Parkinson’s disease, a devastating, progressive movement disorder, have been largely unknown for years. Laurie Sanders, PhD, is investigating a novel cause of this disease: damage to mitochondrial DNA. In this Faculty Spotlight, the newest member of our faculty discusses her research and its implications for understanding Parkinson’s disease, how she got involved in this work, and what she misses most about living in her former home of Pittsburgh.

What are your responsibilities within the Neurology Department? What does your average work day look like?
I lead a translational science laboratory that focuses on understanding the underlying molecular mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease, as well as biomarker development. A typical day involves conducting experiments, analysis, designing and managing projects. It will likely also involve grant and manuscript writing, mentoring my research team and interacting with other scientists and the community.

Your research focuses on Parkinson’s disease, specifically on how damage to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) may contribute to Parkinson’s disease. How did you first come up with the idea for this theory? What implications do your discoveries in this area have for patient care and our understanding of Parkinson’s disease?

Towards the end of my graduate career I wondered whether some of the same DNA damage and repair pathways that I was studying in bacteria might be relevant for neurodegenerative diseases. How neurons deal with genomic instability, especially mitochondrial DNA and what impact this may have for dysfunction and cell death is not well studied. We believe our studies on mtDNA damage and repair will change the way we diagnosis, treat and design clinical trials for PD.

Are there other diseases or conditions that have a similar cause?
We still don’t definitively know what causes Parkinson’s disease, so at the moment we can’t say whether other diseases have similar causes. There is a lot of work to do!

How did you first get interested in researching movement disorders? What do you enjoy most about your work?
Early on in my postdoc career I became involved in advocacy for Parkinson’s disease patients and caregivers on the state and national level in the organization that was formerly known as the Parkinson’s Action Network. It has since then merged with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. I was inspired by their stories and formed close relationships with this community and decided to focus my research efforts on Parkinson’s disease. My motivation stems from these relationships and has fueled the fire in my belly to make a difference for those that suffer from Parkinson’s disease and their families. I actually enjoy most aspects of my job and find it extremely rewarding.

You’re coming to us from the University of Pittsburgh, where you spend the last eight years. What do you miss most about that location? What’s surprised you the most about Durham and the Triangle?
I spent a long-time in the Pittsburgh region and what I miss most are our friends. The most surprising thing about Durham and the Triangle is the fantastic food everywhere you go, but where are the fries on salads?  It’s a Pittsburgh thing.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
My sons Alexander and Xavier (almost 5 and 3 years old, respectively) are the light in my life. I enjoy being outdoors with them, digging, exploring and seeking new adventures. Landscape photography is my hobby and I am looking forward to taking advantage of the wonderful scenery in North Carolina.Sanders
Sanders and her husband Chris enjoy a night out at San Francisco's House of Prime Rib.