May 5, 2017 - Out of approximately 800 research abstracts submitted to the 2017 MedStar Health Research Symposium, an abstract examining a potential neurotherapeutic being developed in a Georgetown University Medical Center lab took one of the top honors.
The abstract by Yasar Torres-Yaghi, MD, a MedStar Georgetown University Hospital fellow, was awarded first prize in the highly competitive category for postgraduate residents and fellows in at least their fourth year of training.
A neuro-restoration fellow at MGUH, Torres-Yaghi said he was surprised and excited to receive the award. His work showed the beneficial effect of a cancer drug on mice bred with a neurodegenerative disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease.
Torres-Yaghi conducted his research under the mentorship of Charbel Moussa, MBBS, PhD, scientific and clinical research director for GUMC’s Translational Neurotherapeutics Program. He gives credit to Moussa and his co-researchers for the success of the collaboration, and said the use of videos helped illustrate the power of his research to the abstract committee.
“The data were really interesting, but it was also great to be able to actually show the physical changes in the mice,” Torres-Yaghi said.
New Therapies on the Horizon
In addition to his laboratory research, Torres-Yaghi also spends time in the department of neurology’s Movement Disorders Clinic, led by Fernando Pagan, MD. “I think it’s valuable to do both clinical work and research,” Torres-Yaghi said. “When you see patients, it makes you a better researcher because you see what patients need and what medications are working or not working.”
Current therapies for Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases include injecting Botox into the major muscle groups to reduce muscle rigidity and tremors, deep brain stimulation to help adjust the areas that control movement, and medications to control the diseases’ symptoms. However, none of those therapies stop the diseases’ progression. Torres-Yaghi said that he believes researchers are poised to make big advances in their understanding of these diseases.
“I think neurology in general is going through a major transformation. That’s what made it an interesting option for me in medical school. A lot of our research findings are going toward understanding how to better treat diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis],” Torres-Yaghi said.
Returning To His Roots
Torres-Yaghi didn’t always want to be a doctor and originally planned to study economics as an undergrad at the University of Chicago. But after completing a junior year thesis project on economics and global health, he changed his major to biochemistry and molecular biology and applied to medical schools.
As a resident, Torres-Yaghi wanted to pursue his interest in global health, and use his Spanish language skills to work in another country. He and his wife, a dermatologist, “basically cold-called institutions,” until they found a neurology hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that would allow him to come work for a few weeks.
A Washington, DC native who grew up near Georgetown University, Torres-Yaghi said he’s glad he has finally ended up here for his specialty training. While Georgetown is one of the few institutions to have a Parkinson’s specialization, Torres-Yaghi is also one of the beneficiaries of the “Fund-A-Fellow” program, which funds two movement disorders fellows each year. While travel is harder as he gets more established and busy, he said he hopes to eventually help patients around the world using telemedicine and video calls.