Featured Researcher: Wilma Wasco, Ph.D.

Posted February 12, 2016

Born and raised in Fairfield, Connecticut, Wilma Wasco was always a promising student. When she ended up in honors chemistry without taking the prerequisite course, she knew she had both an aptitude and passion for science. But when she accidentally cloned an amyloid precursor-like protein as a post-doctorate fellow, she began her lifelong career studying Alzheimer’s disease. Today, Dr. Wasco is a renowned researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and is spearheading the research core of Cure Alzheimer’s Fund’s Genes to Therapies™ (G2T) initiative.

Wilma Wasco was born the oldest of three to an attorney and a stay-at-home mom. As a child, Wasco was always looking under rocks in search of insects to play with. In high school, she enjoyed dissection and her science classes, but didn’t develop an interest in disease research until later.

Education

In the late ’70s, she attended the University of Connecticut (UConn) and thought at the time she might want to be a lawyer like her dad. When she tried to enroll in chemistry as a freshman, she wasn’t able to get into the class, so the next year she tried again, without success. Instead, she decided to enroll in honors chemistry and loved it, ultimately declaring biochemistry as her major at the end of her sophomore year.

After graduating from UConn in 1981, Wasco went on to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. She loved New York, but after graduating in 1987, she wanted to try a new city—Boston—to carry out her post-doctoral studies, landing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a research fellow.

Alzheimer’s Disease

While Wasco was at MIT, she accidentally cloned something that was similar to the amyloid precursor protein (APP). “At the time, almost 30 years ago, APP had just been discovered,” says Wasco. “It was a precursor to amyloid and my post-doctoral adviser and I met with Dr. Rudy Tanzi to determine if my APP-like clone was worth characterizing.”

After Wasco completed her post-doctoral work, Tanzi offered her a position at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) studying Alzheimer’s disease genetics and cell biology, and she’s been there ever since. “I was almost 30 years old at the time, and looking for an opportunity to focus my research on something that could have a direct impact.” She most certainly has.

Dr. Wasco was part of an international effort that identified the familial Alzheimer’s disease-associated presenilin 1 (PS1) and presenilin 2 (PS2) genes. In addition, her laboratory identified genes that encode the two amyloid precursor-like proteins (APLP1 and APLP2) and calsenilin, a calcium-binding protein that interacts with the presenilin proteins. Her research has been focused on understanding the biological role that each of these AD-linked proteins plays in the normal, aging and diseased brain.

Cure Alzheimer’s Fund

Most recently, Wasco has been at the helm of the research core of Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Genes to Therapies project—an innovative and collaborative approach to studying genes and developing specific therapies. As a veteran in her field, Wasco has worked with many different investigators and has a very good understanding of the research.

“Working with Cure Alzheimer’s Fund is unique,” says Wasco. “As a scientist, I’m used to having to beg, borrow and steal funds for every project I work on. It’s really wonderful to get up every morning and not have to worry about where we’re going to get the money for this important research. I love Cure Alzheimer’s Fund’s single-minded drive to cure this disease, and their innovative approach.”

Dr. Wasco is a Pew Biomedical Scholar and a member of the Genetics and
Aging Research Unit at MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease. She has been honored with the National Research Service Award, the Becton-Dickson Research Fellowship Award and the MGH Women’s Career Faculty Development Award.

When she’s not in her lab working, she enjoys cooking, hiking with her dog and watching sports with her two teenage sons, neither of whom has an interest in science—yet.

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