Ning “Jenny” Jiang, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Dell Medical School’s Department of Oncology, has been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) to participate in the philanthropic organization’s inaugural Neurodegeneration Challenge Network.

Jiang Jenny

The CZI, founded by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and medical doctor Priscilla Chan, will give $51.95 million in research funding to mark the launch of an ambitious collaborative project aimed at improving our understanding of the underlying causes of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Jiang, who is the sole researcher from The University of Texas at Austin to receive a CZI grant, will study the “high-throughput 3D profiling of single T cells in neurodegenerative diseases” — a novel approach to understanding our immune system response.

Although it is understood immune cells play a part in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases, we know relatively little about the specific composition of the so-called T cells involved and how they react to the corresponding antigens specific to neurodegeneration.

Jiang’s primary goal for the CZI grant will be to advance understanding of the function of infiltrating immune cells, especially T cells, in neurodegenerative diseases.

“I am extremely grateful for this opportunity,” Jiang said. “It is a true honor for such a forward-thinking organization to recognize the merit in my research, given how many other worthy candidates were also in the running.”

Jiang has developed systems immunology tools in her lab at UT that profile single T cells known to infiltrate the brain during neurodegeneration. The technology provides greater understanding of the role of the immune system, thereby potentially offering new immune-based diagnostic approaches and more effective treatments.

Through the CZI program, top early-career engineers, physicians and scientists with expertise in neuroscience, cell biology, biochemistry, immunology and genomics will use the funding to conduct collaborative research into neurodegeneration in an effort to learn more about diseases where many questions remain unanswered.

More than 500 applications were submitted to the CZI to participate in the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network, and Jiang was one of only 17 individuals to receive an award, along with nine collaborative science teams from research institutions nationwide.

“To fill gaps in our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, we need to support new approaches, explore new ideas and help experts connect across disciplines,” said Cori Bargmann, the head of science for CZI. “We’re excited to welcome the first group of CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network grantees. Together, their work will increase our knowledge of the basic biology of these diseases — and we need that knowledge to develop better treatments.”

Jiang has devoted her career to learning more about how the human immune system works. Her research has already earned her international recognition as a thought leader in her field, with numerous publications in major academic journals, including related research in a recent issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“We are still learning how and why immune cells behave the way they do in the human body,” she said. “But my long-term goal is to advance new methods for earlier diagnoses of neurodegenerative diseases and, by extension, the development of more effective treatments.”