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UNCP attracts a top international neurobiology research scientist

August 31, 2009

A scientist with an international reputation in Alzheimer’s disease research will join the faculty this fall at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

1ben_bahr.jpgDr. Ben A. Bahr has accepted the William C. Friday Distinguished Professorship in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. He will be a tenured member of the Biology Department with laboratories and offices in UNCP’s Biotechnology Research and Training Center at COMtech.

In addition to other sources, a $200,000 grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBC) will help fund his lab and purchase materials and supplies for research on neurodegenerative disorders. The NCBC’s Oliver Smithies Faculty Recruitment Grant Program aids in the recruitment of top science talent to North Carolina.

Besides research into Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders, Dr. Bahr has a history of attracting grants, collaborating with the international scientific community, training student-researchers and entrepreneurship.

Dr. Bahr discovered a new class of drug that reduces Alzheimer-type protein accumulation. He has worked with several pharmaceutical companies and co-founded Synaptic Dynamics, Inc., a company that is developing novel drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and other protein accumulation disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.

Dr. Bahr described the discovery, which came early in his career.

“I was playing with brain tissue to determine how it was compromised by aging events and discovered that a small manipulation can trigger clearance mechanisms to work harder,” Dr. Bahr said. “The brain is vast, just like the universe, and there are probably infinite possibilities regarding how it encodes memory, which we are merely scratching the surface in our understanding, but there are also countless ways the memory systems can be disrupted by disease.

“Alzheimer’s is a tragic disease, but once early diagnosis is made, new strategies should be able to slow it down and make it more manageable,” he said.

His research on other neurodegenerative diseases has led to projects to develop protection avenues against a wide range of brain damage from trauma to stroke.

A Southern California native who comes to UNCP from the University of Connecticut, Dr. Bahr is the first person to serve as the Friday Distinguished Professor, named in honor of the retired UNC president, and to occupy the new Friday Chair Research Laboratory.

UNCP is fortunate to attract an outstanding scientist of Dr. Bahr’s caliber, said Dr. Martin Slann, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“He will arrive at UNCP with important and potentially life-saving research projects already funded and well underway,” Dean Slann said. “The search committee members have done their work well and have selected an individual who is at the first tier of scientific scholarship. 

“We all have every confidence that Ben Bahr will continue to build and augment an international reputation that can only bring great benefit to this institution,” he said.   

Dr. Bahr’s resume is distinguished and well-rounded.

He earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was most recently on the faculty of the University of Connecticut’s Pharmaceutical Sciences and Physiology and Neurobiology departments.

Dr. Bahr has several patents pending, and he has licensed different inventions from his work to pharmaceutical companies.

Besides founding his own company, Dr. Bahr served as consultant and/or collaborator for several pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merz Pharmaceuticals, Cortex, and MAK Scientific.

An editorial board member for five academic journals since 2004, he has won several awards including the Young Investigator Award from the International Society for Neurochemistry and from the University of California at Irvine, where he taught for seven years in the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

With almost $2 million in grants received from federal, non-profit and corporate sources, Dr. Bahr has more than $2 million in pending grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

Dr. Deborah Lundin, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, wrote the NCBC grant.

“The University’s capacity for securing extramural research support will receive a significant boost with the arrival of Dr. Bahr on campus,” Dr. Lundin said. “His expertise for acquiring resources from a variety of federal, national and international entities will be invaluable as a catalyzing force for UNCP faculty as they increase their efforts to engage in funded research.”

Dr. Bahr agreed, saying research attracts both funding sources and human resources.

“I hope that our work in the lab will open funding doors and push others in the field to see there are new ways to treat and study Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders,” Dr. Bahr said.

With 130 publications to his credit and numerous conference presentations, Dr. Bahr has taught and mentored many undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students. On this subject, he is enthusiastic.

“Much of my research has been conducted by exceptional undergraduate students, and I like the focus at UNCP on undergraduates and their involvement in research,” Dr. Bahr said. “Undergraduate research is what got me started in my career.

“Throughout my career, I’ve met very enthusiastic students who want to work with me to understand Alzheimer’s disease,” he continued. “Because Alzheimer’s is always in the news, students share my interest in the field.

“The complexity of the brain offers students the incredible opportunity to realize that everything they do in the lab makes an impact in the field,” he said.
Dr. David Zeigler, chair of the Biology Department, said Dr. Bahr’s research will bring prestige to the University and its students. 

“Dr. Bahr has a strong record of student involvement in lab-based research, and he has already made contacts with our students for research experiences in his lab,” Dr. Zeigler said. “His classroom teaching will undoubtedly provide excellent opportunities for our students in biology and chemistry.

“Dr. Bahr has a large number of important contacts at other universities and in industry that will likely prove important to both our students and faculty in the future,” he said.           

Dr. Robert Poage, a member of the Biology Department, chaired the search committee.

“Bringing Dr. Bahr to UNCP is unprecedented for our scientific community,” Dr. Poage said. “As a neurobiologist myself, I could not be more pleased.

“Besides seeking someone with extensive funding for research, we were looking for someone with experience working with undergraduate students and that is relatively rare for a top researcher,” Dr. Poage continued.

Dr. Poage attributed the success of the search to the University’s willingness to vigorously market the position and its commitment to support the Friday Chair with financial resources. The grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which Drs. Poage and Deborah Lundin wrote, was also a critical factor.

“Having a dedicated laboratory space available at the new biotechnology facility was also helpful,” he said. “Dr. Bahr wanted to get into his own lab and, with undergraduates, produce publishable research, and that is what we were looking for.”

Dr. Bahr is pleased with his new laboratory and has enjoyed meeting the faculty at UNCP. Among his arsenal of resources, he is bringing to the new lab his research assistant.

“It’s worth noting that my lab manager Jeannie Hwang, who started as an undergrad in my lab a few years ago, is accompanying me to North Carolina,” Dr. Bahr said. “It seems like things are working out for a nice Pembroke Alzheimer’s disease kick-off to jumpstart the role of the University and local communities, together enhancing awareness for the importance in finding effective treatments.

“With other Comtech labs, including that of Dr. Len Holmes, we hope to further promote UNCP’s strength in biotechnology research in North Carolina,” he said. “At UNCP, I will be able to put more focus on research and drug discovery.”

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This news article drew material from an interview of Dr. Bahr by Lauren Silber of the University of Connecticut as well as telephone interviews.