Miranda Orr, Class of ’02

The little town of Saco in northeastern Montana boasts a humble population of 225. Although it’s known for agriculture, Saco also deserves credit for Miranda (Yeska) Orr. A 2002 alumna of MSU Billings, Orr is now a renowned scientist whose research may just provide the answer to curing Alzheimer’s disease.

A shift toward science

Orr believes that education can impact an individual and the world. She encourages others to use their education to enhance Montana and beyond.

“Something can be introduced to you that you didn’t even know was possible,” she said.

Orr was valedictorian and one of Saco High School’s 10 graduating seniors in 1998. No one in her family had attended college, but her parents were adamant that she set her sights as high as possible. She left Saco for an education, even though, as she recalls, “I just wanted to be a farmer.”

Orr began her college career as an art major at Montana State University in Bozeman. When she became intrigued by her roommate’s biology textbooks, her academic direction shifted toward the sciences.

Planting the seed

 After only a short time in Bozeman, Orr received shocking news that her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As her grandmother’s health deteriorated, Orr transferred to Montana State University Billings to be with family.

 “It was really there that I was first introduced to this possibility of pursuing science as a career,” she said.

After experiencing the effects of Alzheimer’s first-hand, Orr had a new ambition: she wanted to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Orr realized early on that her ambitions were lofty, but she proceeded toward a degree in medicine. Dr. David Butler, a biology professor at MSUB, put the notion in her mind that if she really wanted to cure a disease, she should consider a career in research. Orr credits Butler as one of the most influential people of her education.

“Dr. Butler definitely planted the seed and then kept encouraging me,” Orr said.

Butler remembers Orr as one of the top students he’s mentored in his 22-year teaching career.

“She was the kind of student every teacher dreams of having,” said Butler.  

Zombie cells

After graduating from MSUB in 2002 with a bachelor’s in biology, Orr spent two years working as a cattle embryologist at her uncle’s embryo transfer company. Her experience reassured her love for science, and she returned to Bozeman to study neuroscience at the graduate level. Orr then finished her dissertation in Great Falls at the McGloughlin Institute for Biomedical Sciences in 2012.

Orr’s next steps took her to Texas, and in 2016, she received an independent research grant to get her even closer to her goal. Along with a team of researchers at University of Texas Health San Antonio, Orr made an incredible discovery toward curing Alzheimer’s.

The team’s research used aging mice and targeted a type of cellular stress that can be implicated for the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s. Orr refers to the senescent cells as “zombie cells” because they stop dividing and growing without dying, and take over the surrounding healthy cells. This phenomenon, called tau protein accumulation, is an agent in cancer, aging, and many brain diseases.

Orr and her team used senolytic drugs to destroy zombie cells in the brains of mice, stopping the progression of the disease in its tracks.

Endless possibilities

A method of diagnosing Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages has yet to be discovered, but Orr hopes her research will enhance the efforts of others.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless,” she said.  

Even if her discovery doesn’t ultimately cure to the disease, it could be the stepping stone that another study needs. Either way, her once seemingly out-of-reach ambition is now a possibility.

Looking back, this small-town Saco farm girl encourages others to pursue their goals, too.

“The education that students get in Montana is really phenomenal,” Orr said. “That is something that, a lot of times, when you’re from a small community and your world feels small, you don’t always know how you stack up against the rest of the world.”

Orr’s influence started in Montana, but the world will continue to feel the impact of her work for generations. She proves that the possibilities of education are endless.

By Hannah Olson, public relations assistant
MSU Billings Alumni Association