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Scientist provides real-time visuals of estrogen studies

Advanced imaging techniques allow HSC researcher to study pathways that protect the brain

by Dan Carino
Rey Dominguez in the lab
Rey Dominguez checks his research. (Photo/Dan Carino)

At dusk, Los Angeles viewed from the high-rise labs at the Zilka Neurogenetic Institute glows under the fading light. For most on the Health Sciences Campus, the image signals the end of the day. For Rey Dominguez, a postdoctoral fellow who does his research in the Chow laboratory, it’s a special time.

While the city lights flicker outside, Dominguez fires up his own light show, applying advanced imaging techniques to the field of estrogen studies.

It was 10 years ago as a Ph.D. student at the Michel Baudry lab that Dominguez stumbled upon a mechanism that could explain how hormones impact the central nervous system. At the time, he was focusing his research on estrogen-mediated neuroprotection — the ability of estrogen to rapidly activate pro-survival pathways involved in providing protection to the brain either before or after injury or degenerative disease.

“People really didn’t understand how the membrane receptor was interacting with different sorts of proteins in the cell membrane in order to activate these pathways,” Dominguez explained.

Understanding the mechanisms mediating the protection and repair of neural networks is becoming increasingly relevant due to the rise of age-related brain diseases and injuries in the United States.

Visuals of key mechanisms

“Estrogen studies have largely focused on the use of biochemical and histochemical techniques to track these mechanisms,” Dominguez said. What he has been able to do with his research is provide dramatic real-time visualizations of these mechanisms, particularly in live neurons.

The images for his study are generated by a custom-built microscope illuminated with an Argon laser, then captured by an Electron Multiplying Charge Coupled Device camera.

“Access to custom high-end equipment and advance training were initially what drew me to USC from UCLA as a postdoc,” he said. “But it’s the mentorship that really make my postdoc experience incredible and sustainable.”

In 2013, Dominguez was the recipient of the USC Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar Research Grant. The $25,000 award supported a recent paper in collaboration with Robert Chow, principal investigator at the Chow laboratory at USC, and Kassandra Kisler from the Berislav Zlokovic lab, who specializes in the study of Alzheimer’s disease through live-tissue imaging.

The approach to research in the published paper exemplifies a broader university initiative: promoting and facilitating collaboration and innovations between researchers of diverse and disparate disciplines.

“It’s like a salad here! Everyone has different backgrounds and areas of specialty. The advantage to that is we’re all able to talk about the techniques,” Dominguez said. “This allows for more innovations and different ways to look at research.”

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