Nerve Regeneration Studies Lead Colorado State University Research Foundation to Name Physiologist ‘researcher of the Year’

A professor of physiology at Colorado State University has been named Researcher of the Year by the Colorado State University Research Foundation for his work on the regeneration of the nervous system.

Douglas Ishii, also a professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology department, received the award Tuesday evening at the Foundation’s 15th Researchers’ Recognition Dinner, which was held to honor individuals at Colorado State with active technology license agreements or patent applications filed or patents issued in fiscal year 1999-2000.

Ishii has worked since the mid-1980s to understand the role of insulin-like growth factors, or IGFs. Natural substances found in the body, IGFs protect and spur the growth of nerves.

IGFs hold promise for treating neurological problems such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease, but Ishii’s initial and continuing interest is in using them to heal diabetic neuropathy.

Characterized by numbness and pain in the hands, feet and legs, the condition affects some 10 percent of the estimated 13 million Americans with diabetes. Diabetic neuropathy can lead to serious complications that include urinary and bowel dysfunction, impotence, dizziness and gangrene.

A decade ago, medical practitioners believed diabetic neuropathy came from high levels of blood sugar, but Ishii’s research has provided evidence that low levels of IGFs are probably a crucial factor.

Looking for the molecular mechanism by which IGF hormones help nerves develop and regenerate, Ishii and his laboratory colleagues have found that, when nerves are damaged, IGFs increase in that area, and, conversely, that using anti-IGF antibodies can decrease the rate of nerve regeneration, slowing down recovery.

In another, more recent experiment, Ishii confounded conventional medical wisdom by showing that IGFs, large protein molecules, could enter the brain through the bloodstream. By crossing the "blood-brain barrier," the hormones were able to travel into cerebral-spinal fluid surrounding the brain and help restore nerve function. Ishii has worked with CSURF to file for and obtain patent protection for these developments.

A series of clinical trials are needed before IGFs can be used as treatment for diabetic neuropathy, Ishii said. The trials will be expensive, but Ishii is confident his work has progressed far enough to merit funding and clinical support. Since 1992, Ishii has been president and CEO of Aurogen Inc. of Fort Collins. Aurogen has licensed the patent rights to these developments from CSURF and is pursuing commercialization of these technologies.

"CSURF feels that Dr. Ishii has made a significant breakthrough in the treatment of diabetic neuropathy," said Kathleen Byington, president and CEO of the research foundation. "This disorder results in a number of complications and up to 50,000 amputations in the United States alone.

"An efficacious treatment for diabetic neuropathy has the potential to increase the quality of life for diabetics on a worldwide basis. CSURF supports and applauds Aurogen’s and Dr. Ishii’s efforts on commercializing this technology."

A LaPorte resident, Ishii earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley. He earned a doctorate in pharmacology from Stanford University and conducted postdoctoral study there in neurobiology. He taught in the pharmacology department of Columbia University before joining Colorado State as an associate professor of physiology in 1985.

Ishii was named associate professor in Colorado State’s biochemistry department in 1986 and promoted to professor of physiology and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in 1989.

Ishii has received a National Institutes of Health Predoctoral Fellowship, a Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Research Postdoctoral Fellowship and a National Research Service Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship. He has served as an adviser to a number of federal review committees and panels. He has published more than 60 scientific papers.