PhD candidate awarded NIH Kirschstein Award for research on Rett syndrome

David Keener, a doctoral candidate in the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ interdisciplinary graduate program, has been awarded a National Research Service Ruth L. Kirschstein of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The grant will help fund Keener’s project on Rett syndrome, a genetic neurodevelopmental disorder generally diagnosed in girls between 6 and 18 months of age that eventually robs patients of their ability to speak, walk or use their hands.

“The awarding of the grant means a lot to me. “It means that I’m able to pay my own way through the end of my graduate school, and it means that the NIH has determined that my project is of high enough importance and impact,” Keener said.

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Rett syndrome is caused by mutations in a gene called MeCP2, which is a master regulator of gene expression in the brain. Working with mentor Jonathan Watts, PhD, professor of RNA Therapeutics, Keener is focused on delivering the essential mRNA-based editing machinery to neuronal cells, as well as creating more stable synthetic primary editing RNAs to target these mutations.

“Prime editing is uniquely well placed to correct many types of genetic mutations, including the most common cause of Rett syndrome,” said Dr. Watts. “It’s exciting to combine this NIH grant with support from the Rett Syndrome Research Fund and move a new treatment option closer to helping patients.” The work David will do during this fellowship will help develop platform technologies to make the first edit easier to implement and treat other diseases.

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Keener remembers wanting to be a scientist as a child growing up in Needham. He earned a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology and a minor in Spanish from the University of Rochester. When he applied to UMass Chan, Keener thought he would major in neurobiology or bacteriology because of his previous experience working as a lab technician for a pharmaceutical startup making small molecule antibiotics.

“Instead, I made a personal connection with Watts Lab and found that I fit in well with that group,” Keener said. “I had to learn all about RNA biology and synthetic chemistry on the fly, but I love it. To me, who you work with is just as important as what you work on.”

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Keener credits Dr. Emily Haberlin, the department’s senior science writer, who assists RNA Therapeutics Institute students with grant applications, with helping him win the award.

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Lauren O’Connor receives the prestigious NIH Kirschstein Award
Rett Syndrome Research Trust provides $2.7 million in new research funding


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