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Erika Williams, MD, PhD, Receives ANF Development Grant for Genetic Research on Autonomic Nervous System

Jan 22, 2024, 15:46 PM by Maggie Schmidt
Erika Williams, MD, PhD, a NM fellow at Massachusetts General Brigham, was selected to receive an ANF Development Grant to support her research project, “Genetically Decoding Human Afferent and Efferent Autonomic Ganglia.”

Erika Williams, MD, PhD, a NM fellow at Massachusetts General Brigham, was selected to receive an ANF Development Grant to support her research project, “Genetically Decoding Human Afferent and Efferent Autonomic Ganglia.”

Dr. Williams’ research interests surround the autonomic nervous system, which she deems complex, fascinating, and vital. “Disorders of the autonomic nervous system can impact people profoundly, and in ways that can be difficult to parse and to address. Scientifically, our understanding of the autonomic nervous system is growing rapidly, and truly coming in to its own in the era of molecular and cellular neuroscience,” she shared. “It is this combination - the critical role that autonomic nervous systems play, and the powerful molecular and cellular tools available now to understand it - that fuels me. We are in an exciting time because we can bridge clinically intractable problems with new scientific insights.”

Dr. Williams’ research will begin with comparing single-cell sequencing data from human ganglia with existing maps for mice. She explained, “Much foundational work has been done, and is ongoing, to delineate various types of neurons, their anatomy, physiology, and molecular profile in the mouse, yielding critical insights about how the nervous system controls key functions like breathing, circulation, and digestion, among others. At a minimum, I want to know if humans have these same neurons too! The degree of similarity and difference is not only of basic scientific interest but would also provide a very concrete set of molecularly defined tools for future work.” 

Dr. Williams’s research holds great promise for advancing the field of NM research, as well as enhancing the overall understanding and treatment of autonomic disorders. She explained, “Clinically, at present, we cannot directly query the autonomic nervous system. We have a set of testing procedures that allows us to measure outputs like blood pressure and heart rate, from which we infer autonomic dysfunction. This is sophisticated and useful, but indirect and at its core is still based on inference. With this project, we hope to fill in that gap and to directly query at single-cell resolution the organization of the human autonomic nervous system, and how that organization changes in disease. I hope this will change how we think about autonomic disorders in our patients. In addition, a data set replete with molecularly defined targets I hope will facilitate novel therapy development for autonomic disorders.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Williams would like to both care for patients with autonomic dysfunction, and to run her own basic and translational laboratory. “I am hopeful that with the short-term work we will be able to identify tractable targets for new therapies in autonomic neurology and to generate new hypotheses and frameworks for future scientific endeavors in the field. I’d like to see these goals through in my own laboratory and clinical practice over the years to come.”

Dr. Williams learned about the ANF Development Grant from her fellowship program directors, and decided to apply because she felt the ANF Development Grant would be a uniquely incredible opportunity to help build the foundation for a clinical research career. “My scientific goals and career trajectory, and the goals of the ANF with the Development Grants, felt like an ideal fit,” she said. “A very heartfelt thank you for the opportunity to make an idea real. The meaningfulness of this support can never be overstated.”



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