The Developmental Synaptopathies Consortium (DSC) is composed of a group of medical centers throughout the US studying three related rare genetic syndromes that often cause autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, including tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). These rare diseases seem to affect certain shared pathways influencing the development of brain connections, or synapses.
In May, Felix Chan, PhD, received the DSC’s first-ever TSC Alliance Young Investigator Award. Felix is a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Judy Liu, MD, PhD in the Department of Molecular, Cellular Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. The TSC Alliance Young Investigator Award is a two-year fellowship funded by the TSC Alliance and utilizes the extensive clinical data and biological samples of the Consortium. The intent of the fellowship is to offer early-stage investigators the research environment and training they need to launch an academic career in research beneficial to individuals living with TSC.
Felix’s fellowship project, titled “Lysine metabolism in tuberous sclerosis complex,” will examine how lysine metabolism interacts with the protein complex mTORC1 in the context of epilepsy symptoms of individuals with TSC that are enrolled in the DSC longitudinal study.
We recently talked with Felix to learn more about him and his research.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I just always wanted to be a scientist, but “scientist” was not really a career in Indonesia, where I grew up. If you wanted to do science, your only career opportunity was a science teacher or a doctor. So, I did pre-med and went to medical school. In my fourth year, I had the opportunity to join a program for a Master’s degree in Research at Newcastle University in the UK. I specialized in neuroscience and loved it so much that I was able to continue as a PhD student with my supervisor, Prof. Mark Cunningham.
What activities do you do outside of the lab?
I’m a big foodie! I love to cook and bake, especially gooey chocolate brownies to share with the lab. Pre-COVID, I also loved going to concerts, especially Taylor Swift!
I’ve been studying the metabolic aspect of epilepsy since my PhD, so about 10 years now. There’s a lot of activity going on in neurons with epilepsy, but very little is known about what the metabolism looks likes and how we can potentially target metabolism. The mTOR protein is well known in TSC and does play a role in metabolism, but we do not fully know how mTOR affects metabolism requirements to support neuronal activity in epilepsy.
How did you become interested in TSC research?
My current post-doc lab looks at rare causes of epilepsy. We had human surgical samples, including some from TSC patients, so we looked at and found dysregulated lysine metabolism in our TSC samples. This finding led me to the TSC Alliance for continued study on the topic using larger-scale patient samples and funding from the Developmental Synaptopathies Consortium.
What is a topic in science that you are excited about?
I am very excited about the idea of manipulating metabolism through a dietary approach to treat brain diseases as an alternative to drug treatments. In some (not all) patients with epilepsy, a specific diet called the ketogenic diet can be effective in reducing epileptic episodes. However, we don’t yet understand enough about the basic metabolism in different types of epilepsy to learn what kinds of other dietary changes would be effective. I’d love to research this avenue with my current lysine metabolism project in the future!