An Alzheimer’s research pioneer, right here at Penn

Virginia Man-Yee Lee, a professor and researcher at the Perelman School of Medicine, is the 2020 recipient of a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, earning $3 million for her innovative, inspiring work that could one day cure various neurodegenerative diseases.

A primary project for Garrett Gibbons, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research (CNDR), is to develop novel tau antibodies as possible therapies to treat Alzheimer’s disease. When in the thick of it, the scientific process becomes a huge, timely—and sometimes redundant—task.

One particular experiment comes to mind: Gibbons and his colleagues were injecting tau into mice models, which the mice developed antibodies against, and when they were harvested, the cells were paired with another cell to make a hybridoma. The problem? After two times running the full experiment, the antibodies still didn’t meet certain criteria to be applicable.

Gibbons, quite disheartened, told his adviser Virginia Man-Yee Lee, a Perelman School of Medicine professor and director of CNDR, that the benchmark was too high.

“Virginia was like, ‘Well, try again,’” Gibbons recalled. “She pushed back and said how she thought we could do better.”

Although admittedly frustrated at the time, Gibbons rethought the project, and, ultimately, underwent a revamped test a third time.

“And we got better antibodies, performing better than the previous ones,” he said. “They are now the candidates that we are evaluating as immunotherapy in mice, as potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.”