Jeffrey Milbrandt, M.D., Ph.D., the James S. McDonnell Professor of Genetics and head of the Department of Genetics, and Aaron DiAntonio, M.D., Ph.D., the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Professor of Developmental Biology, will co-lead the new Needleman Center for Neurometabolism and Axonal Therapeutics at Washington University School of Medicine. The center was established through a $15 million commitment by School of Medicine Emeritus Trustee Philip Needleman, Ph.D., and his wife, Sima, M.S.W. ’74, to accelerate drug development for chronic diseases of aging.

The Needleman Center for Neurometabolism and Axonal Therapeutics creates a formal structure to a longstanding partnership between Dr. Milbrandt and Dr. DiAntonio, who have worked for a decade researching nerve degeneration and its role in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and peripheral neuropathy. In 2017, the pair discovered that SARM1 is an active enzyme that is key to the degenerative process, which opened the door for researchers to develop a drug that blocks SARM1 from triggering axon degeneration.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” Milbrandt said. “This is the crowning achievement of our careers so far, and we want to be the ones to carry this work forward — we don’t want to wait for normal grant funding mechanisms to kick in,” Dr. Milbrandt said in a recent article about the center in Outlook Magazine.

The Needlemans’ gift will also establish the Philip and Sima Needleman Center for Autophagy Therapeutics and Research. The center will work to identify and develop drugs that target key parts of the autophagy pathway, which could help patients with Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, cancer and other conditions.