Don W. Cleveland, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist 2018

Don W. Cleveland is a cancer biologist and neurobiologist studying mechanisms and therapies for neurodegenerative diseases at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Cleveland is a pioneer in his field, having made multiple discoveries that have led to a greater understanding of neurodegenerative diseases. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, and in 2018 he was awarded the prestigious Breakthrough Prize, which honors important achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics.

Among Cleveland’s discoveries is the tau protein, which mutates or abnormally accumulates in cells, leading to cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, frontal temporal dementia and chronic traumatic brain injury. He identified key steps that trigger disease and that accelerate ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) disease progression from a mutation in superoxide dismutase. These findings have changed the direction of stem cell and gene silencing therapies in ALS. Cleveland is also responsible for discoveries on the etiology of Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder, with implications for a number of other neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases.

He has developed promising gene-silencing therapies, also known as designer DNA drugs, which can block the activity of the gene whose mutation causes diseases such as Huntington’s disease. These therapies are in clinical trials for ALS, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and are being adapted for treating several other diseases, including glioblastoma, chronic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease.

The NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award is enabling Cleveland and his team to identify a previously unknown mechanism for cell entry in the mammalian nervous system, develop gene editing/gene suppression approaches, and identify the underlying basis for liquid-liquid de-mixing and its contribution to neurodegenerative disease. His NOMIS-supported project is titled, Mechanisms of Gene Silencing and Liquid-Liquid De-mixing in the Nervous System.

Cleveland earned his PhD from Princeton University, NJ, United States, in 1977.  He did postdoctoral work at the University of California at San Francisco before becoming a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1981, moving to the University of California at San Diego in 1995. He is the department chair of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Neurosciences at UCSD, and head of the Laboratory for Cell Biology at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in San Diego.

For more information about Don W. Cleveland, please see his faculty profile.