Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science
Jeanne T. Paz
Jeanne T. Paz’s rise to scientific prominence is a tale of survival against the odds. Raised in the shadow of war, Paz surmounted adversity to secure a place among today’s leading young scientists, thanks to her uncommon talent and resolute efforts. Now an assistant professor at the Gladstone Institutes and the University of California–San Francisco, Paz has made path-breaking contributions to neuroscience early in her career. Her work carries implications for treating brain disorders such as epilepsy, dementia, and some forms of autism.
Paz was raised in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the early 1980s. From an early age, she took inspiration from her physicist parents, accompanying them on visits to a mountaintop observatory and playing with computers in the lab. But her peripatetic childhood was far from idyllic, unfolding in surroundings where sectarian violence was distressingly common. At the age of 10, she immigrated to Israel, where her parents pursued postdoctoral stints at the University of Tel Aviv. Soon after the family arrived, the Persian Gulf War broke out, with Paz witnessing the war’s terrifying toll and facing the ever-present threat of attacks. “As a child, I spent quite some time wearing gas masks. We would be playing in the yard, the alarm would sound, and we would run home and seal the doors hermetically to protect ourselves from the bombs,” she recalls.
Shortly thereafter, her parents divorced; her mother accepted a postdoctoral position in France, and Paz returned to Georgia to live with her grandmother. It was the early 1990s, and Paz’s mother strived to pursue a scientific career while supporting her daughter back home. Meanwhile, civil war raged in Georgia, and Paz endured its privations. “There was not enough money, and for several months, we ate nothing but potatoes. So I grew to love potatoes,” she says.
Impelled by the plight of the war’s casualties, Paz resolved to study medicine: “People were dying from hunger and lack of medical treatment; that’s when I decided I wanted to become a doctor.” She enrolled in medical school in Lyon, France, in 1997, but soon realized that medicine’s bedrock—and her real passion—was science. So she moved to Paris in 1999, first for a master’s degree in science and later for a doctorate in neuroscience at the College de France.
There, she worked with neuroscientist Stephane Charpier on the brain mechanisms underlying epileptic seizures in rodent models. Paz found that a group of brain cells called the basal ganglia controls the occurrence and spread of seizures. She then went on to show that seizures could be controlled by using drugs to inhibit a different group of neurons in a brain region called the substantia nigra, which helps fine-tune the activity of basal ganglia neurons. The work earned Paz wide recognition among peers as well as a postdoctoral position with Stanford University neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth, who helped launch the field of optogenetics.
Optogenetics, in which light is used to puppeteer genetically engineered brain cells in living animals, has transformed researchers’ ability to unravel neural circuitry underlying brain disorders. At Stanford, Paz used optogenetics in rodents to unveil the role of a brain region called the thalamus in mediating epileptic seizures following stroke.
Her work revealed that tamping down the activity of neurons in the thalamus that relay signals to the stroke-damaged areas of the brain ameliorated seizures in rodents. The findings, published in Nature Neuroscience, underscored the promise of optogenetics for uncovering the mechanisms of stroke-induced seizures and suggested the path forward for potential therapies for epilepsy. Though optogenetics is far from ready for use in humans, Paz’s work showcases the power of optogenetics in pinpointing brain regions implicated in disease. (Today, the thalamus is the focus of clinical trials in which electrodes implanted deep into the brain are used to arrest seizures in people.) Paz’s contributions led to an assistant professorship at the University of California–San Francisco in 2014 and a joint appointment at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease.
There, she found that the rodent thalamus harbors two kinds of neurons, parvalbumin and somatostatin neurons, whose interplay might influence the onset of seizures in people with a range of conditions, such as Dravet syndrome, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. She showed that altering the firing states of neurons in the thalamus arrests seizures in rodents before they spread through the brain. “For different types of seizures, we are finding that there are different chokepoints in the brain,” she explains. The hope is that targeting these chokepoints will lead to treatment approaches to blunt seizures. More intriguingly, she adds, preliminary work from her lab suggests that subtle signs can be detected in electroencephalograms that might someday lead to biomarkers to predict the onset of seizures following brain damage in patients.
Over the next decade, Paz hopes to develop therapeutic approaches for intractable epilepsy. Judging by the insights she has already uncovered, Paz is poised to make clinically meaningful advances in the coming years.
Paz says the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise recognizes survival against the odds: “It’s not easy to succeed as an immigrant anywhere. The United States is where I grew up as a scientist, and the meritocracy in this country means that everyone is given an equal opportunity to succeed. So this prize, which recognizes the struggle of immigrants, means the world to me.”
Vilcek Prizes Gala
Browse photos from the Vilcek Foundation Awards Gala, honoring the recipients of the 2019 Vilcek Prizes.
2019 Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science
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2019 Creative Promise Prizes in Biomedical Science
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2020 Creative Promise Prizes
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