A right Royal event

It’s 6.45 a.m. and I’m trying to find my way to the BBC Sheffield studios for a series of local radio interviews, but I’m lost in the dreaded one-way system (I knew I should’ve got the sat nav out, but it looked so easy on the map….). Just after seven I get into the studio and in front of the mike about a minute before I’m scheduled for a slot on BBC Radio Ulster. The system allows other regional stations to link directly into one of their network studios, so over the next 90 minutes I do a quick ‘tour of the country’ (Norfolk, Cambridge, Shropshire, Somerset, Teeside and, of course, Sheffield) without leaving my chair.

The reason for the early morning activity was the formal opening of the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) by the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh.  Led by SITraN Director Professor Pam Shaw, the institute offers a state-of-the-art environment for researchers working on a number of neurodegenerative diseases, with the principal focus on MND. I’d been lucky enough to have been up there last week, thrashing out the details on a new clinical biomarker study we’re going to be funding, so I’d already had the tour under more relaxed circumstances than yesterday’s occasion!

We had to get there well in advance of the royal party, but it gave me the chance to touch base with some of the scientists we’re funding, as well as catch up with representatives from other research funding bodies, such as the MRC, Parkinson’s UK and SMA Trust. The way a degenerative processes occurring in one disease will have overlap with the processes occurring in other diseases, so it’s important to catch up on what’s going on in other research fields and to discuss possible ways in which the research funding bodies might work more closely together.

We certainly knew when the guest of honour had arrived from the noise outside, courtesy of the local schoolchildren lining the main street.  The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were taken on a tour of the new building and learned about some of the avenues of research being explored by the different specialist teams, ranging from computational biology and genetics through to development of new laboratory models and clinical research. I was keen to find out how the clinical studies we’re funding were going, so at lunch was handily sat beside the clinician who is currently running studies in airway clearance techniques and the optimum timing of gastrostomy in MND patients. He was also able to update me on his bid to the Dept of Health to conduct a trial of a new respiratory intervention known as diaphragm pacing, to which the MND Association is lending its support as a potential co-funder.

The institute will provide a fantastic working environment for researchers and I could see the energy and enthusiasm among Pam’s team that comes with moving into a ‘new home’. Ultimately, though, it’s brainpower and dedication, not bricks and mortar, that will defeat this disease. As I left, I reflected on the fact that the Association provided its first research grant to Pam Shaw almost 20 years ago, when she was first entering the world of MND research – the first of many such awards over the years. It’s good to know we backed a winner.

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