Published: July 10, 2014 By
Mary Allen is a postdoc in Robin Dowell's lab at the BioFrontiers Institute.

Mary Allen holds up a valentine sent to her from a childhood friend. It sits in her cubicle where she is hard at work tearing apart genomic data looking for patterns. This friend, who has Down syndrome, is part of the reason that Allen, a postdoctoral researcher in Robin Dowell’s lab at the BioFrontiers Institute, became interested in studying aneuploidy. Aneuploidy means that cells have too many, or too few, of one or more chromosomes. In the case of Down syndrome, there is an extra copy of chromosome 21. Allen is exploring what makes people with this extra chromosome survivors.

“Down syndrome is actually not all that survivable,” says Allen. “Only 25 percent of embryos with three copies of chromosome 21 survive to live birth. These people who are surviving and living long lives have something in their DNA—from their genetic background—that is helping them.”

Down syndrome is the most commonly occurring chromosomal condition and more than 400,000 people in the United States are currently living with it. Allen is right about them being survivors. According to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, life expectancy for people with the syndrome has increased dramatically from 25 years in 1983 to 60 years now, due in part to better educational programs, health care and support from families and communities.

Allen is taking genetic sequencing data from people with Down syndrome and their parents to understand how that extra copy of chromosome 21 puts this population at higher risk for health issues such as heart defects, thyroid conditions, leukemia, Alzheimer’s disease, and respiratory and hearing problems. She is also trying to understand why they are at lower risk for heart attack, stroke, and solid tumor cancers. Allen isn’t out to find a cure for Down syndrome. Her goal is to find what in their DNA is helping these survivors, and how can we design targeted molecular therapy to help them have better lives.

“Once you have had a friend with Down syndrome, stopping the occurrence of the syndrome isn’t on the table,” says Allen. “They are just such great people.”

Allen recently was awarded a Sie Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue her Down syndrome research for the next two years. This fellowship was created under the Anna and John J. Sie Endowment Fund for the BioFrontiers Institute, which is targeted specifically at funding research to prevent the cognitive and medical ill effects associated with the extra chromosome 21. The fellowship is offered as a collaboration between BioFrontiers and the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus.

The BioFrontiers Institute also awarded Sie Fellowships to Geertruida Josien Levenga of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Genetics and to Alfonso Garrido-Lecca of CU-Boulder’s Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. Dr. Levenga is a neuroscientist whose research holds promise for ameliorating the seizures that afflict so many individuals with Down syndrome. Dr. Garrido-Lecca will test the hypothesis that alteration of microRNA levels in individuals with Down syndrome contributes to some of their health challenges.

Dr. Allen sees the new fellowship as welcome news for her work. Research funding for Down syndrome has always been extremely low. The National Institutes of Health in 2012 allocated only $50 in research funding per person living with the condition, versus $270 for Fragile X research, $329 for multiple sclerosis research and $2,867 for cystic fibrosis research. Individuals with Down syndrome have special health needs, like heart conditions and decreased immunity, which can be helped by further research. In addition, since Alzheimer’s disease, leukemia, low muscle tone and weight gain are seen at a high incidence in people with Down syndrome, researching the syndrome may lead to treatments for these associated disorders in the broader population.

“Research on the smaller ear canals of people with Down syndrome is now helping people who suffer from deafness and other auditory disorders,” says Allen. “Unlocking the cellular processes behind one disorder can help us with so many others.”