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Asma Zaidi, PhD

KCU Researcher Pursues Neurodegeneration Breakthrough for Pediatric & Geriatric Patients


Curing the neurodegenerative effects of aging is one of the next great medical mysteries to solve. This becomes more important as the average lifespan increases. For Asma Zaidi, PhD, Vice Chair of Basic Sciences and Professor of Biochemistry at Kansas City University (KCU), identifying the root causes of this degeneration is her primary focus. If solved, even slightly, the quality of life will be improved for all.

Zaidi’s research program and lab focuses on brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These diseases have hereditary forms, but most patients are not genetically predisposed. “About 5% of neurodegenerative cases are familial, but 95% are sporadic, with no known cause,” Zaidi said. In this overwhelming majority, aging is the only common denominator.

Zaidi works on a protein called the Plasma Membrane Calcium ATPase. This protein functions as a pump that actively manages the calcium balance in neural cells. When the activity of this calcium pump declines, cellular degeneration increases. “We were the first to show that the calcium pump's activity declines progressively with age. This may be one of the mechanisms that cause neuronal cell death in aging,” Zaidi said.

In trying to understand what would cause this calcium pump mechanism to fail, Zaidi found it was uniquely susceptible to oxidative stress. “When you expose this protein to free radicals, even for as little as 15 minutes, it loses activity dramatically, and we can even see its fragmentation and breakdown,” Zaidi said.

Serendipitously, Zaidi was having coffee with a colleague from Children’s Mercy Kansas City, and the conversation led to a rare but impactful condition of pediatric stroke. This led to a new collaborative research project and grant proposal to identify parallels between the two different but painfully similar neurodegenerative diseases. “This really touched my heart, and I found that there hasn’t been much work on this topic,” Zaidi said. “We found a similar free radical stress in these patients and their less developed antioxidant systems. These pediatric patients have a double whammy and would benefit from our research tremendously.”

For Zaidi, this research and mission are personal. “My mother suffers from dementia, and I see her losing her faculties, and it's personally very painful. I want to understand the cause and what leads up to this decline because I know what the benefit of this discovery would look like firsthand,” Zaidi said.
Zaidi came from India, where she completed her education. She did research fellowships in Paris, France, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before coming to Kansas City, which she calls home now. She sees the region playing a significant part in life sciences. “KC is becoming an eminent research hub in the nation, and I think that BioNexus KC plays an important role in bringing academic institutions and small companies together to promote science,” Zaidi said. Beyond the work, she also sees the region serving an important role. “The people of Kansas City are just so kind, compassionate, and collaborative by nature,” she said. “We take care of each other, we learn from each other, and we have almost made it into our success model.”

As the population improves physical health and fitness, more people will live in an age where these neurodegenerative diseases will impact them. For researchers like Zaidi, if one factor is identified and improved, part of the mystery is solved. This has the potential to impact the lives of patients and families significantly, all hoping for more time together.

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