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Noted Researchers Recruited to UB's Hunter James Kelly Research Institute

Hunter's Hope Foundation CEO says hopes "couldn't be higher"

By Lois Baker

Release Date: August 12, 2010

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Lawrence Wrabetz, right, discusses his plans for the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute. From left are Laura Feltri, who also has been recruited to the institute, Hall of Fame Quarterback Jim Kelly and his wife, Jill Kelly.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Lawrence Wrabetz, MD, head of the myelin biology unit at San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy, has been appointed director of the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute (HJKRI) at the University at Buffalo.

Laura Feltri, MD, who heads the neuroglia unit at the Italian institute and is Wrabetz's spouse, also has been recruited to the HJKRI, which was established in 2004 by UB and the Hunter's Hope Foundation. Wrabetz and Feltri will begin transitioning their laboratories to Buffalo this fall.

Both are highly regarded neuroscientists with significant backgrounds in basic and translational research on myelin, known as white matter -- the sheath protecting brain nerve fibers that is essential for all normal functioning of the nervous system. They will work as a team in the HJKRI, located in UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in downtown Buffalo.

The appointments are in collaboration with Hunter's Hope Foundation, established in 1997 by Jim Kelly, Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback, and his wife, Jill, after their infant son Hunter was diagnosed with Krabbe Leukodystrophy, an inherited fatal disorder of the nervous system. Hunter died in 2005 at the age of eight.

The HJKRI research focuses on remyelination (pronounced: re-my-uh-lin-A-shun) techniques and the biology and pathophysiology of Krabbe Disease, with the goal of discovering ways to correct the genetic defect responsible for Krabbe Disease and other leukodystrophies (pronounced: loo-koh-DIS-tro-fees) and of developing effective treatments for these conditions.

HJKRI research on remyelination techniques also is expected to benefit patients with multiple sclerosis, stroke and other diseases involving white-matter destruction.

Michael Cain, MD, dean of the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, in announcing the appointments, said: "Working with the Hunter's Hope Foundation, the UB medical school has been able to recruit from Italy a team of physician-scientist superstars.

"Dr. Wrabetz has all the skills needed to direct and build the basic and clinical research programs that will be established in the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute," said Cain. "His leadership, coupled with the scientific excellence of the Wrabetz and Feltri laboratories, will help fulfill UB 2020's strategic goals in biomedical research and will have an important impact on the public health.

"They are entering a unique and exciting environment in Buffalo that promotes excellence in research and the advancement of medical science through collaboration."

Jacque Waggoner, chief executive officer of Hunter's Hope Foundation and Hunter's grandmother, said of the new recruits: "We are elated and honored to have both Dr. Larry Wrabetz and Dr. Laura Feltri join the Hunter's Hope family. Their appointments complete our leadership team for the HJKRI.

"The clinical arm of the HJKRI, headed by Dr. Patricia Duffner, has been functioning for more than three years, and has made significant progress in the development of a Krabbe Worldwide Registry, clinical evaluation and treatment protocols for Krabbe, as well as initiatives to maximize the success of Krabbe Newborn Screening programs," Waggoner said.

"With Larry and Laura driving basic science research in conjunction with Dr. Duffner, our hopes and expectations could not be higher."

Wrabetz will hold a primary appointment in the UB Department of Neurology, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. Feltri will have a primary appointment in the UB Department of Biochemistry.

Wrabetz received his bachelor's degree at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1980 and his MD degree from the University at Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine in 1984. He completed his residency in neurology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., followed by a two-year Dana Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and an advanced postdoctoral fellowship, both in neuroscience, at University at Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

He held a faculty appointment in the University at Pennsylvania School of Medicine's Department of Neurology for two years, and then joined the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in 1993 as a researcher in the Department of Genetics and Cell Biology.

Wrabetz was named to head the institute's Biology of Myelin unit in 1995, and in 2001 also became affiliated with the Joseph Stokes, Jr., Research Institute of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He was named an adjunct associate professor in the University at Pennsylvania School of Medicine's neurology department in 2002 while continuing his work in Milan.

Wrabetz's research into myelin and neuropathy has been supported continuously since 1995 by grants from European research institutes and international pharmaceutical companies, and he currently holds a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study myelin protein neuropathies in transgenic mice.

Feltri is co-investigator with Wrabetz on the research with transgenic mouse models, with a primary interest in cell differentiation, tissue growth and the development of the peripheral nervous system and the process of myelination.

She currently is principal investigator on a $1.25 million grant from NIH to study laminin receptors -- proteins found in the basement membranes of most animal tissue -- and their interaction with Schwann cells. The basement membrane is a thin, delicate layer of connective tissue underlying the outer tissue layer of many organs. Schwann cells cover the axons in the peripheral nervous system and form the myelin sheath.

Feltri received her MD degree from the University of Milan in 1988, and completed a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in neurology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1992. She then returned to Italy to take a position as research assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at San Raffaele Hospital at the University of Milan.

She began working at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in 1995, was appointed adjunct investigator at the Joseph Stokes, Jr., Research Institute in 2001 and adjunct associate professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Neurology a year later. In 2006 Feltri was named head of the Neuroglia Unit.

Her research has been supported since 1998 by grants from the Italian Ministry of Health, and as subcontractor on NIH grants collaborating with researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich.

Wrabetz is a member of several professional and scientific societies, including the American Academy of Neurology, the American Society of Neurochemistry, the International Society of Neurochemistry and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Feltri is a member three Italian national societies, including the Italian Society of Neuroscience, and is a member of the American Society of Neurochemistry, the American Society of Neuroscience and the AAAS.

Both researchers are author or coauthor on many papers published in peer-reviewed journals.

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