Neuroscientist Lynette Daws, Ph.D., is testing compounds that may prove to be novel medications for psychiatric disorders.

A dream of understanding behavior

Monday, March 2, 2015by Will Sansom


Neuroscientist Lynette Daws, Ph.D., is testing compounds that may prove to be novel medications for psychiatric disorders. In this way, she is fulfilling her lifelong dream to untangle the mysteries of animal and human behavior.

As a child growing up in Adelaide, South Australia, Lynette Daws, Ph.D., dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. “I always had a menagerie of animals – mice, rats, guinea pigs, cats, birds,” she says.

As her schooling progressed, she enrolled in an undergraduate program at Flinders University, which turned out to be the proverbial fork in the road. Dr. Daws, professor of physiology and pharmacology in the UT Health Science Center School of Medicine, soon discovered two things: the field of neurobiology and a mentor, David Overstreet, Ph.D., who would ultimately supervise her doctoral research.

“I wanted to know what drives behavior, what makes animals and people behave the way they do,” Dr. Daws says. “David was interested in psychiatric disorders. It all went from there. He also inspired me to come to America for the first time.”

25,000 strange accents

In 1994 she attended the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Anaheim, Calif., in part to network for a postdoctoral fellowship. “The meeting had 25,000 registrants,” she says. “There I was, jet-lagged, my first time in the States, amid all these people with funny accents. I lasted 10 minutes and went back to the hotel. Fortunately I got myself on track, returned, met a lot of people and got several job offers.”

One was from Alan Frazer, Ph.D., chairman of pharmacology at the Health Science Center. He employed her as a postdoc from 1994 until 1996.

I do, I do

Dr. Daws returned to Australia in 1996 for a faculty position at the University of Adelaide, but part of her heart remained here. She and Glenn Toney, Ph.D., professor of physiology at the Health Science Center, were in a long-distance relationship, and he proposed to her in 1997. “Long story short, he eventually convinced me that I should marry him,” she says with a smile. “I insisted we get married in Adelaide, so he had to trek over there.”

After the nuptials, she again called Dr. Frazer, who hired her as an assistant professor in pharmacology. She worked in the Frazer lab until 2001.

An R01 and a baby

Transitioning to her own lab, Dr. Daws submitted her first R01 research grant to the National Institutes of Health in early 2001. “I remember the submission date vividly, Jan. 24,” she says. “The deadline was Feb. 5, but I had another due date, which was my second child. She was due on Valentine’s Day, but I had this feeling she might come early, so I submitted the grant early. Sure enough, she came Jan. 25.” That was the couple’s second daughter, Jalen, now 14. Kelsey, 15, and Catelyn, 12, are her sisters.

As spouses and neuroscientists, Dr. Daws and Dr. Toney learn from each other. “He’s been a wonderful mentor to me, particularly in understanding grantsmanship, the art of convincing reviewers that what you know is a great idea really is a great idea,” she says.

Dr. Toney studies how the brain controls cardiovascular function and metabolism, whereas Dr. Daws is interested in brain imbalances in psychiatric disorders and finding new targets for novel medications.

Vacuuming up serotonin

The Daws lab is funded to study depression, drug abuse and anorexia. The group studies organic cation transporters — “vacuum cleaners” that take up the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine from the brain’s extracellular fluid, making them less plentiful for neurons. It’s thought that imbalances in these neurotransmitters are linked to these disorders. By turning off the “vacuum cleaners” in creative ways, Dr. Daws aims to restore a more normal balance of neurotransmitters.

“We are leading the field with these studies of organic cation transporters in mental health disorders,” Dr. Daws says. “It is gratifying to see papers citing our findings. People are paying attention to the fact that these transporters are important.”

Compounds

Dr. Daws, is especially thankful to W. Anthony Owens, who has worked with her since 1999, as well as to her entire lab team. "Without their hard work and dedication we would not be making the discoveries that we are." Together, they are collaborating with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) on synthetic compounds that may inhibit the transporters’ activity. “ANSTO is making new compounds for us, and we are screening them using animal models,” she says. “My dream is for at least one of these agents to prove effective in clinical trials and become the mainstay in clinical treatment of mood disorders.”

The dream of understanding behavior, which began with a menagerie of animals in Adelaide, is alive and well in San Antonio.