Western’s Jeff Carroll Awarded More than $1.2 Million in Pair of Grants to Research Huntington’s Disease

Western Washington University Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeff Carroll has secured a pair of grants for more than $1.2 million to assist in his continuing research into the causes and potential treatments for Huntington’s disease, a fatal genetic degenerative brain disorder.

The two grants, one for a little more than $1.1 million from the CHDI Foundation and the other for $100,000 from the Bev Hartig Foundation, will allow Carroll and his lab to continue their work how changes in brain-cell metabolism – essentially how those cells burn energy and what they use that energy for – can either speed up or slow down the processes that lead to Huntington’s.

“What we are looking at is to see if changes in metabolism are predictors that could lead to a treatment or a therapy for the disease,” Carroll said.

Carroll said that the funding comes at an opportune time, and will allow him to continue to work with two key collaborators: Dan Raftery at the University of Washington and Nathan Price at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

Carroll said Raftery’s research specializes in feeding labeled carbon to cells and seeing how those cells spend that carbon. Do they use it to make energy? Do they use it to build proteins, or make fats? These are all parts of the metabolic process that Carroll needs to have charted to see how the cells are performing.

Carroll said the Price lab at the Institute for Systems Biology builds computer models of cells based on the data that is gleaned by the work of his lab and Raftery’s. The models are then able to predict probabilities that certain cells will act or perform in certain ways under those conditions, a hugely useful tool in testing out potential therapies or reactions.

Carroll has a unique interest in Huntington’s, as the disease is genetic and in 2003, not long after leaving the Army, he tested positive for the gene that causes Huntington’s – which means he is guaranteed to get it himself.

Shortly thereafter, he began an academic odyssey that would eventually take him to the University of British Columbia for his undergraduate degree and his doctorate and Harvard Medical school for his postdoctoral fellowship, focusing all his research along the way on the disease that in all likelihood one day claim his life unless a cure can be found. He has been at Western since 2011.

“I hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said. “I act like it’s going to kill me, but I hope and believe that it won’t.”

For more information on the grants or Carroll’s research into Huntington’s disease, contact him at (360) 650-2928 or jeff.carroll@wwu.edu, or see this story from Western's "Window" magazine: http://windowmagazine.org/window/index.php?section=Stories&id=437.