Meet the scientist behind the science: Dr. Viviane Labrie

Dr. Viviane Labrie leads a lab in Van Andel Research Institute’s Center for Neurodegenerative Science. Her team studies the dynamic interplay between the human genome and its control system — the epigenome — to understand how neurodegenerative diseases start and progress in an effort to develop improved diagnostics and treatments.

VAI Voice had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Labrie about her career, interests outside of work and what she sees on the horizon for Parkinson’s research.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada, in a small town called Deep River — it’s in the middle of nowhere. The town was originally built by a nuclear research facility, so there were many scientists and their families living there. It was a really nice place to grow up with a lot of forests and nature.

When you’re not working, what hobbies or interests are you passionate about?
My main passion outside of work is competitive horseback riding. When I was living in Canada, I did competitions in Canada and the United States. Now, I do national competitions. The competitions I participate in combine three disciplines, including cross country riding that involves galloping and jumps in forest and fields, dressage — which is like ballet with your horse — and show jumping on a course. I try to practice with my horse at least four times a week.

What inspired you to become a scientist?
My father was a nuclear physicist, so science was a part of my life early on, and in school I gravitated toward it. I really loved nature, medicine and animals when I was growing up. My interest in science continued to flourish even more when I went to University of Toronto; I took a lot of neuroscience courses, and learned about how the brain works and was fascinated about how mysterious and complex it is.

What made you decide to come to VAI?
The last place my family lived was outside of Toronto. I decided to go to the university there and that’s where I completed my undergraduate degree, Ph.D., and my postdoctoral work. Eventually, I received a position as an assistant professor. I had just started my position when I learned about an opening at the Institute. I heard that the Institute was looking for someone with experience in both epigenetics and neurodegenerative diseases and thought it would be an incredible opportunity.

When I met with everybody during the interview process, I realized this was a place of great caliber science, and I was really excited to be a part of it. The environment here, where we have a focus on both epigenetics and neurodegenerative diseases, allows for more meaningful interactions between scientists and helps us move our research forward in really exciting ways.

How would you describe your research to someone unfamiliar with science?
I work as a neuroscientist and a geneticist. I study the origins of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. I try to understand what is happening at the cellular level that may cause changes that could lead to these two neurodegenerative diseases.

Specifically, I study different mechanisms in the cells that affect the way DNA works. There is the DNA code, then there is a second code that sits on top of the DNA called epigenetics. Epigenetics is almost like a coat the DNA wears. When the coat opens, readers of the DNA can come in, and then that part of the DNA can be activated — but when it’s closed, these readers can’t access the DNA and those genes in that section of DNA remain silent. In this way, the epigenetic code is able to guide how genes work and determine how they affect the function of cells.

The epigenetic code can be inherited, meaning you can get it from your mom and dad, but it can also change because of environmental factors throughout a lifetime. The foods you eat, how much sleep you get or how much stress you have can also play a role in epigenetics. The epigenetic code greatly affects how your cells work can be both inherited and changed by your environmental experiences. We think that changes in this epigenetic code might have a significant function in the development of neurodegenerative diseases, but we aren’t yet sure how this happens.

In your field of study what do you see on the horizon?
Scientists working in epigenetics and neuroscience have done a really good job at cataloging how epigenetic changes on the cellular level affect different tissues, and they’ve created a good record of these differences and changes. Now, we are trying to understand how these epigenetic changes play a part in the development of neurodegenerative diseases, and we are also trying to understand the mechanisms behind these changes.

We are also very interested in the role of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in Parkinson’s disease. Most people don’t think of areas outside of the brain as being important in Parkinson’s, but we’ve noticed that the pathology associated with Parkinson’s disease, which is a clumped protein called alpha-synuclein, can be seen in the GI tract many years before the symptoms of Parkinson’s occur. There is a hypothesis that suggests environmental factors might play a role in clumping of the protein in the GI tract, and we are interested in how epigenetics might influence this process because of how responsive epigenetics is to the environment.

Alpha-synuclein can travel from neuron to neuron, and we think that it can spread through conduits like the vagus nerve that connects the GI tract to the brain. Scientists have found that Parkinson’s pathology often starts where the vagus nerve connects to the brain. Once the pathology occurs at this spot, it can move between neurons, eventually reaching an area where there are a lot of dopaminergic neurons that it destroys, which leads to the motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s. Parkinson’s disease pathology has also been detected in the GI tract in early disease cases. Overall, the way the pathology travels and its presence in the GI tract early on suggests that, for some individuals, Parkinson’s disease could start in the GI tract. We are studying the factors that could be responsible for the initiation of Parkinson’s pathology in the GI tract and its eventual transit to the brain.

How does philanthropy help support your research?
Philanthropic support is really important because it allows us to explore projects we might not be able to through traditional funding mechanisms. It allows us to do projects that are really creative and be a little risky, but extremely rewarding scientifically. Philanthropy is also important because it helps us start a project, build on it, and then apply later for other funding mechanisms.

Recently, I was given a $100,000 Van Andel Institute Faculty Innovation Award, which allowed me the opportunity to start a project that studied the role of different gene regulatory sequences in Parkinson’s disease. It was something that hasn’t really been done before, so it was a bit adventurous. This research led to some really interesting results, and we were able to take those results and apply for federal funding, leading to a grant for $1 million that we can use to continue our research. Because of philanthropic support, we were able to take $100,000 and grow our funding tenfold. That’s pretty incredible.

Learn more about Dr. Labrie’s work by visiting her lab website here.