Building Muscle

Life Sciences faculty combine their efforts to find a possible treatment for muscular dystrophy.

By Sarah Syphus

Researchers from BYU’s Departments of Exercise Sciences and Physiology and Developmental Biology are working to develop a treatment for muscular dystrophy (MD), a group of genetic muscle diseases that weaken the musculoskeletal system. Currently, no treatment exists to stop or reverse muscle deterioration in patients with MD, but these researchers hope that their collaborative work on a recently discovered compound will someday lead to stronger muscles and brighter futures for those diagnosed with the disease.

Microscope image of muscle fibersThe project was inspired by a conversation during a seminar for new faculty of the College of Life Sciences. Dr. David Bearss, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology, and Dr. Robert Hyldahl, an assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Sciences, happened to be sitting next to each other during the seminar, and they began to talk about their research interests. Bearss had been researching a new compound discovered in his cancer research lab that seemed to act as an inhibitor of receptors that receive signals from a molecule called myostatin— a molecule that tells muscles not to grow. During their conversation, Bearss realized that this compound might interest Hyldahl. “We came into this project through a serendipitous route, which is how a lot of science happens,” said Bearss. “You are planning to do one thing, and it turns into something else.” That “something else” has continued to look promising for these researchers, and they have recently applied for a grant to fund trials of the compound in mice.

Although this kind of collaboration between faculty members, and especially between departments, has not necessarily been common practice in university research—that may be changing. While faculty members at universities are expected to be primarily independent researchers, there seems to be a growing allowance for, and even an expectation of, collaborative work between scientists in university settings. “I think we’re starting to realize that if we want to make progress against human disease and other big problems, working as a team can bring different perspectives to the table, and there’s a lot of value that comes from that,” said Bearss.

Each researcher involved in this study brings a skill set that promises a synergistic blend as this project moves forward. Dr. Allen Parcell, another professor in the Department of Exercise Sciences, joined Bearss and Hyldahl in the collaboration. His experience in human as well as animal physiology adds an important level of experience to the group, especially as they hope to begin animal trials. “Each of us contributes something to help answer the question in a more complete way,” said Parcell. “Any one of us alone would run into limitations when we got to a certain point in a study like this. Together, we can address all the facets of this study.”

While the majority of the group’s research focuses on MD, its members believe that if they have positive results, this compound could be used to treat other types of muscle impairment found in cancer patients, the elderly, and even in astronauts who lose muscle mass due to disuse during prolonged time in zero gravity. This compound may also be used to treat obesity as the increase in muscle mass leads to an increase in the rate of metabolism. Of course, this project is still in its early stages, but if the research is successful, this collaboration could one day contribute to a treatment that will strengthen individuals who suffer from muscle deterioration associated with MD and other debilitating conditions.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Hyldahl. Microscope image of muscle fibers.