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Photo of Xuan Nguyen

Using "Knockout Mice" to Fight Epilepsy

Graduate student Xuan Nguyen says that his current research project began with some well-traveled mice.

"Before I came to UK, I was working at a private medical research foundation in Oklahoma City, doing behavioral studies with mice. My mentor and I were focusing on one particular peptide to find out its role in learning and memory," says Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam but has spent almost his entire life in Oklahoma. And when he came to UK, Nguyen brought his mice with him.

These aren't your run-of-the-mill mice, he says. These are "knockout mice."

"Knockout mice are genetically modified—a particular gene has been selectively removed. In our case, the gene of interest is prodynorphin, which encodes a precursor for a series of peptides present in the brain that may play an important role in neuron function. By studying mice that lack prodynorphin, we hope to be able to determine whether this gene is needed for certain physiological or behavioral effects," Nguyen explains. This work has potential applications in understanding and treating age-related cognitive decline and epilepsy.

His mentor in this project is Guoying Bing, a recent hire in the UK Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, who worked with Nguyen in Oklahoma. "I wanted to continue my work with Dr. Bing," Nguyen says, "so here I am."

"We met in the Free Radical Biology and Aging Program at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, where Xuan had begun his graduate studies," says Bing, an associate professor. "Our preliminary studies and data from other laboratories suggested that prodynorphin-derived peptides may contribute to age-dependent changes in learning and memory. These studies involved analyzing the ability of the mice to acquire and retain spatial information in a common behavioral task known as the Morris water maze swim task (a mouse in a tank of water has to swim to a slightly submerged platform, then on subsequent trials remember where that platform is). We plan to confirm these findings by conducting other behavioral, physiological, and biochemical tests on these mice."

Bing was quite pleased when he found out Nguyen was planning to follow him to Lexington. "Xuan has a very solid science background. He's received numerous awards for his scientific research, he is intelligent, and he's eager to collaborate with other scientists. Basically," Bing adds, "Xuan has all the qualities that a good scientist is supposed to have."

In Oklahoma in the spring of 1999, Nguyen applied for and won a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute Predoctoral Fellowship, which is designed to support Ph.D. students and medical scientists. This fellowship was worth $34,000 last year—$18,000 went to Nguyen and the rest was awarded to the school to pay his tuition, health insurance, and travel and research expenses.

A second fellowship, awarded to Nguyen soon after he started his graduate studies here, came as a total surprise, he says.

"Yes, I was pleasantly shocked to find out that I'd been given a Graduate Student Incentive Program award by the UK Graduate School," he says. This stipend is available, on a competitive basis, to any graduate student who has been awarded a national fellowship worth $10,000 or more annually, according to former Graduate School Dean Mike Nietzel. "The Graduate School provides a five percent supplemental stipend through this initiative," says Nietzel, who now serves as the academic provost at UK. "For the 2000-2001 academic year, six UK graduate students won this award." Applications for this stipend are available on the Graduate School Web site, www.research.uky.edu/gs. "We think of this award as an 'added incentive,' for both the student and the student's department," Nietzel explains.

Other current recipients of the Graduate Student Incentive Program stipend represent the departments of agricultural engineering (2), anatomy and neurobiology, mechanical engineering, pharmacology, psychology, toxicology, and Spanish.

Jeff Worley