As a graduate student, Matthew Scaglione, PhD, became interested in how the body made and destroyed proteins–and how these processes could go wrong in neurodegenerative disease. Now, as an assistant professor at Duke, his research straddles the intersections between neurology, molecular genetics, and microbiology to better understand how we might be able to develop treatments for these conditions. For this week’s spotlight interview, we talk to Scaglione about about how a cellular slime mold may help us develop treatments for Huntington’s disease, how the COVID-19 epidemic has changed his work and home life, and brewing beer and raising a family and a group of pullets when he’s not at Duke.
What were your pre-COVID-19 responsibilities within Duke and the Neurology Department?
I am an Assistant Professor who runs a research laboratory that focuses on understanding the underlying causes of neurodegenerative diseases. The laboratory largely focuses on understanding how protein quality control pathways recognize and handle misfolded proteins that accumulate in these diseases. I have the pleasure of working with graduate students, senior scientists, and research technicians on a daily basis. I have a secondary appointment in Neurology and have really enjoyed all of the great journal clubs, data updates, and talks that occur in the department.
How has the COVID-19 epidemic changed that work? What does a typical workday look like for you nowadays?
The epidemic has definitely changed my work schedule. I am working with my students to write up a couple manuscripts and reviews, all being coordinated with Zoom meetings a few times a week. We still have our weekly update meetings, journal clubs, and lab meetings via Zoom as well. The biggest change has been that I get to also be a tutor for a 2nd and 5th grader. It makes getting work done more challenging but has been rewarding as well.
Your primary appointment is with the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. How do this discipline and neurology complement each other in your research?
Our lab investigates an amoeba that we and others have found to be resistant to certain types of protein aggregation. Having appointments in both Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (MGM) and Neurology is the perfect mix for our laboratory. Our lab uses genetic approaches in this microbe to learn about potential ways to combat neurodegenerative diseases, so interacting with other labs that are interested in molecular genetics, microbiology, and neurology is the ideal fit for my group!
How did you get interested in this field? What do you think is the most exciting development in the field of neurodegeneration in the past 10 years (or the most exciting development we’ll see in the next decade?
I became really interested in how proteins were made and destroyed as a graduate student. While I was finishing up graduate school, I started reading about how proteins form clumps in most neurodegenerative disease and how this protein clumping may be the underlying cause of these diseases. This coupled with the lack of effective therapeutics for neurodegenerative disease piqued my interest.
I think one of the biggest developments in the past ten years has been the development of RNAi and antisense technologies. These technologies allows for suppression of the expression of the toxic proteins that cause neurodegenerative diseases. This has great potential to treat a variety of neurodegenerative diseases and these therapies are already in clinical trials. I also think this potential therapeutic highlights the need for continued investment in basic science. The whole idea for these therapies comes from basic science research done in the worm.
What is the focus of your current research? How will the results of this research help us better understand or treat neurodegenerative diseases?
Our lab is really interested in the model organism Dictyostelium discoideum (dicty), more commonly known as a cellular slime mold or the social ameoba. This organism has been studied for over 70 years because it has the unusual ability to switch from being a single cellular organism to being multicellular. Our lab is interested in dicty because they naturally contain long stretches of the same amino acid. In some diseases like Huntington’s disease these long strings of the same amino acid trigger protein clumping and neurodegeneration. We have found that unlike other organisms dicty are resistant to this protein clumping phenomenon. Our hope is that we can fully understand all the ways that dicty resist protein clumping then transform our findings into novel therapeutics.
How has the COVID-19 epidemic affected your life outside of Duke? What’s one positive strategy or resource you’ve found that helps you cope?
The epidemic has definitely changed my work schedule. I am working with my students to write up a couple manuscripts and reviews, all being coordinated with Zoom meetings a few times a week. We still have our weekly update meetings, journal clubs, and lab meetings via Zoom as well. The biggest change has been that I also am a tutor for a 2nd and 5th grader. It makes getting work done more challenging but has been rewarding as well.
What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?
Outside of work I love spending time with my family, gardening, cooking, brewing beer, and raising chickens.
Scaglione and family enjoy the fruits of their efforts after designing themed costumes.