UWM professor recognized as 2020 UW System Regent Scholar

UWM neuroscientist Karyn Frick has been honored by UW System as one of three 2020 Regent Scholar recipients. It recognizes Frick’s extraordinary efforts in support of undergraduate research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Our UW System faculty and students are doing amazing research,” UW System President Ray Cross said. “It is important to recognize this vital work and celebrate the individuals who spearhead these innovations.”

Frick and members of her research team are exploring ways to prevent the memory loss that results from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, particularly in women, and the work has led to a startup company called Estrigenix Therapeutics Inc.

“This is significant recognition and a wonderful statement about the value and impact of Dr. Frick’s work,” UWM Chancellor Mark Mone said. “This is a well-deserved honor for her important research and educational contributions.”

The Regent Scholar program was introduced in 2014 and is designed to stimulate faculty-student collaborative research. Frick works closely in her lab with undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to move the research forward.

“I am extremely honored to receive one of this year’s UW Regent Scholar awards,” said Frick, a professor of psychology in the College of Letters & Science. “This award will not only provide valuable research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in my lab, but will allow my company to collect vital data that we hope will lead to new therapies for preventing and/or reducing memory decline in Alzheimer’s patients.”

Memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease strike women three times more often than men as they age, a result linked to a steep decline in estrogen hormones during menopause. But estrogen replacement comes with harmful side effects, such as an increased risk of heart disease and breast cancer.

Frick has a pharmacological answer: Instead of avoiding estrogens, try removing the components responsible for the adverse effects.

Frick’s work has linked estrogens to the specific chemical processes known to create memories in both women and men. She and her collaborators have created an estrogen-like molecule shown to protect memory in a mouse model of post-menopausal dementia. That’s led to their startup company, Estrigenix Therapeutics Inc., which, with support from UWM’s Milwaukee Institute for Drug Discovery, is developing drugs that affect the hormone and its complicated processes.

Estrogens act by binding to two dominant receptors, alpha and beta. Binding to the alpha receptor causes most of the adverse effects from estrogen replacement therapy in menopausal women. Estrigenix’s lead compound works by modifying the most potent form of estrogen so that it binds only to the beta receptor.

“There are multiple forms of estrogens in hormone replacement,” Frick said. “Some are beneficial for brain health, and some aren’t. Our molecule is a smaller version of the most potent form of estrogen, called estradiol, which is particularly diminished in menopause.”

Not just women

Estrogens enhance male memory, too. Testosterone is converted to estrogens in men’s bodies for that purpose. Frick aims to pin down how the modified estrogen molecule acts in the brain to produce improved memory in both sexes.

Frick, who is a co-founder of Estrigenix with Concordia University Wisconsin’s Daniel Sem and Marquette University’s William Donaldson, says making the jump from longtime laboratory scientist to businessperson seemed daunting at first. But she soon learned to understand the language of business – and how to simplify the language that scientists use. She also realized that I-Corps entrepreneurial training had something in common with science.

“You use the information from interviews with potential customers to refine your business idea,” Frick said. “You take that data and make some decisions about whether there’s a viable path forward for the startup. It was interesting to see how that happened in a data-driven way.”

One lesson the team learned during the training process was that women and their doctors were more concerned with mood changes and hot flashes during menopause than the threat of memory loss at more advanced ages. That’s opened a new research path for the Estrigenix team, so Frick and her students are back in the lab to see if the compound can be effective at reducing these other troubling menopause symptoms.

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