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The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative awarded $4.5 million to 30 pairs of scientists, including UNC School of Medicine researchers Sarah Cohen, PhD, and Mohanish Deshmukh, PhD, to collaborate and unlock the underlying biology of neurodegenerative disorders.

Neuroscientists Sarah Cohen, PhD, assistant professor, and Mohanish Deshmukh, PhD, professor – both in the UNC Department of Cell Biology and Physiology – were awarded a $150,000 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), which announced today awards totaling $4.5 million for 30 pairs of scientists working to gain important insights on neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

In October 2019, CZI issued an open request for applications to the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network Collaborative Pairs program. Today’s announcement marks the first phase of this novel, two-phase RFA, in which pairs are receiving seed funds for initial pilots for innovative, exploratory ideas. In the second phase of the RFA, successful project teams will be eligible to apply for additional grant awards of $1.6 million over four years.

Cohen and Deshmukh, who is a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, will collaborate on a project titled, “Illuminating Organelle Dynamics in Development and Neurodegeneration.”

Emerging evidence has shown changes in the function and dynamics of intracellular organelles (mitochondria, lysosomes, endoplasmic reticulum) in multiple neurodegenerative diseases. Imaging presents a powerful tool for tracking the dynamics and functions of organelles. Cohen and Deshmukh will develop a platform for simultaneous, dynamic imaging of eight organelles in multiple cell types derived from iPSC (stem cell) lines to help scientists investigate the contribution of specific genes, genotypes, and organelle dynamics to human health and neurodegenerative diseases. This type of scaled, systems-imaging approach has not previously been applied to neuronal cell types and could be used to compare the impact of different neurodegenerative diseases and mutations on not just one organelle, but multiple organelles simultaneously.

These new CZI grants represent the next phase of the CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network (NDCN), an interdisciplinary collaborative network launched in December 2018. Participants in the 18-month projects will address cross-cutting questions that will help increase understanding of these diseases. The 30 teams combine clinical and basic science expertise, and at least one researcher per pair is in their early-to mid-career.

Projects focus on well-studied neurodegenerative diseases in addition to a broader range of diseases, including Huntington’s Disease, spinocerebellar ataxia, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and other rare, genetically-based pediatric neurological disorders.

Read more about the projects on CZI’s website and on Medium.

About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Founded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges – from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system. Across three core Initiative focus areas of Science, Education, and Justice & Opportunity, we’re pairing engineering with grant-making, impact investing, and policy and advocacy work to help build an inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit