Yuan battles depression with NIH grant

Curiosity is creating an audible buzz among students and faculty engaged in DMU’s increasingly robust research enterprise. This story is part of “Research Engines,” a series on the questions being asked and investigated by DMU researchers.


“If we rank the importance of the disease by the number of people affected, depression is on the rise,” says LiLian Yuan, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology. “Compared to 50 years ago, the number of people that have depression has increased exponentially.”

Re/Search Engines: the pursuit of new knowledge  at Des Moines University The National Institutes of Health estimate that nearly 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, making depression one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. That’s why the world’s largest source of medical research funding awarded Yuan a $433,616 Mental Health Research Grant.

New research has shaken up the long-established thinking on depression. Traditional antidepressants target a single neurotransmitter, but the disease is much more complex than that. Based on this new understanding of depression, Yuan is looking to design a new, more effective antidepressant that works for a wider range of people.

With the three-year NIH grant, she will evaluate the therapeutic potential of D-serine, an endogenous amino acid that shows antidepressant properties, and other candidate drugs. Using animal models, Yuan will generate stress behaviors and test the effects of these drugs on their own and in combination with ketamine, a drug that has shown promising results in a large number of depression studies.

“Traditional antidepressants take several weeks to take effect and you have to give multiple doses. If you stop giving them, the patient is likely to relapse back to the original state,” she says. “What would be ideal is something that has a quick onset and a long-lasting effect. Ketamine is an interesting molecule that holds that potential, but has certain side effects. Our goal is to find something that has similar properties, but without the side effects.”

Probing depression and its links to pain are student and faculty researchers Bradley Lamb, Jessica Kline, Jeremy Kapuscinski, LiLian Yuan, Ph.D., Vanja Duric, Ph.D., and Misty Carder.
Probing depression and its links to pain are student and faculty researchers Bradley Lamb, Jessica Kline, Jeremy Kapuscinski, LiLian Yuan, Ph.D., Vanja Duric, Ph.D., and Misty Carder.

The NIH funding will allow Yuan to expand her research team, which includes her colleague in the physiology and pharmacology department, Assistant Professor Vanja Duric, Ph.D. Duric recently received a $100,000 grant from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America Foundation for his own depression research; he contributed in writing Yuan’s proposal and will be a significant collaborator on the project. The duo plans to add a research technician/assistant and a postdoctoral researcher and provide support for students in DMU’s master of science in biomedical sciences program who are involved in the research.

“Equipment is important, but what really makes a difference is the people who are doing the experiments and advancing the project,” Yuan says. “Dr. Duric definitely brings an important expertise. I feel fortunate to have such a colleague, and we have complementary techniques that have worked out very well.”

Yuan and Duric are among the DMU faculty who have received significant research grants in the past year. They also include Julie Meachen, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy, who landed a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the first such grant awarded to a DMU faculty member; and Eric Wauson, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology, who was awarded more than $200,000 by the American Heart Association to fund his research exploring whether inducing autophagy — a process of cell degradation — can keep heart cells alive during and after a heart attack.

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