About Research Development Team

We are the research development team at the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK

Standing on the shoulders of… Dorothy Hodgkin

On the way to work last Wednesday, a story on BBC Radio 4 – ‘Today programme’ suddenly grabbed my attention: “February will mark the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote!”

Curiosity sparked, I turned up the radio: “BBC Radio 4 are holding an online vote for the most influential British women of the past century. Each day in the run up to the anniversary we’ll be shortlisting and celebrating a candidate for the award”.

Last Wednesday’s nominee was Dorothy Hodgkin, the only British woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Dorothy won her award in 1964 for developing a technique that enables the complex structure of proteins to be deciphered – this is known as protein crystallography. Dorothy used this technique to work out the structure of insulin, vitamin B12 and penicillin.

Funnily enough, I had recently been discussing this technique with my colleague Jessica. I told her the news story when I got to work and we decided we’d share with you how, thanks to Dorothy’s brilliant work, protein crystallography is currently helping researchers funded by the MND Association to find out more about MND.

A brief overview of protein crystallography

Crystallography allows researchers to work out the structure of large molecules. Initially, the technique was just used to work out the structure of chemical substances such as diamonds or sodium chloride. However, Dorothy developed the technique further so it could be used to investigate biological molecules as well. Protein crystallography can even be used to work out the structure of several proteins attached together, something known as a ‘protein complex’.

How does it work?

First, the protein the researchers want to know the structure of is crystallised and a beam of x-rays is then shone through the crystal. The scattering of the beam, known as the diffraction pattern, is analysed by a computer to show the shape and structure of the protein or protein complex.

protein crystallography diagram

Diagram of protein crystallography

Why is crystallography useful in MND research?

There are several faulty proteins that play a key role in MND. These proteins interact differently with other molecules in motor neurones and their behaviour in protein complexes is also altered. Working out the structure of faulty proteins or protein complexes using crystallography can reveal the differences between the faulty and the ‘properly functioning’ proteins. In other words, crystallography can help show us what is going wrong in people with MND that have these faulty proteins.

As well as this, crystallography can be used to see if two specific molecules can become attached together. This is very important for testing if a potentially therapeutic compound can attach to a faulty protein found in MND. Let me give you an example.

How our researchers are using crystallography

toxic clusters in neuron 2

Professor Samar Hasnain’s team at the University of Liverpool is studying a protein called SOD1. Faulty versions of this protein cause 20% of inherited cases of MND. In these patients, the faulty SOD1 proteins don’t interact properly with other important proteins in the cell, resulting in the SOD1 protein forming damaging toxic clusters in the motor neurones.

Using crystallography the team has identified two compounds that can bind to an exposed part of the SOD1 protein to stabilise it, as they suspect this will prevent formation of toxic clusters. The team is now investigating whether, by stabilising SOD1, these compounds can prevent clustering and could therefore be used as a potential treatment for MND.

To sum up, protein crystallography, a technique introduced by Dorothy Hodgkin to help us study the structure of proteins, is still proving incredibly useful in research today and is helping us identify possible ways we could treat MND.

Another nominee for the BBC competition

Interestingly, another female scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who was also in the running for the BBC vote, used crystallography to study the structure of DNA. This was fundamental in the work (and Nobel Prize) of Watson and Crick, and has led to great developments in understanding and hugely significant breakthroughs in recent times.

Read more

You can read more about crystallography on some of our previous blogs:

You can also read more about Dorothy Hodgkin and her work on crystallography here.


This article was written collaboratively by Nick Cole, our Head of Research, and Jessica Sturgess, our Supporter Information Officer.

Catch up on Symposium…focus on causes and treatments

Following on from our previous catch-up blog on clinical management talks presented at the Symposium, here is a continuation that looks at talks focusing on treatment therapies and causes of MND.

RNA Binding & Transport

RNA is the lesser-known ‘cousin’ of DNA – it contains copies of genetic instructions sent out from the nucleus – the ‘control hub’ of every cell. This RNA is carried out of the nucleus by lots of different proteins, including the RNA-binding proteins TDP-43 and FUS, which act as ‘couriers’ dropping off their RNA at the right part of the cell and then returning to the nucleus for the next package.

These binding proteins both play an important role in motor neurone health. In motor neurones affected by MND, the TDP-43 and FUS seem unable to make their way back to the nucleus so they form clumps in other parts of the neurone. How and why this happens is not really understood and several presentations on the first day of the Symposium provided insight into what might be going wrong.  Dr Brian Dickie, Director of Research Development at the MND Association, summarises these presentations in his blog Libraries, Doormen and Harry Potter. You can also hear Brian talk about RNA proteins on the Symposium website. Continue reading

Catch up on Symposium…focus on ‘clinical management’

From abstracts to posters, pushpins to ribbons, it takes a whole year to get to this day – no, not Christmas, but the 28th International Symposium on ALS/MND. In this and the following ‘catch-up’ blog we will summarise what went on at the Symposium and where you can find out more information. To begin with, you can read about what goes into organising the biggest meeting of its kind on our blog:  It’s that time of year again … #alssymp.

Because of the diversity of the talks presented at the Symposium, we categorised them into five key themes that follow the timeline ‘from bench to bedside’; biomedical research, diagnosis and prognosis, causes of MND, clinical trials and treatments, and improving wellbeing and quality of life. You can read more about each of these themes on our Symposium LIVE webpages. Continue reading

Symposium abstracts available online

28th Abstract bookThe 28th International Symposium on ALS/MND in Boston, USA is fast approaching with only three weeks to go. Over 1,000 delegates will come from across the world to listen to over 100 talks and see around 450 posters. To see what will be discussed in these presentations, you can now download the full abstract book from the Taylor and Francis website (volume 18, S2 November 2017).

For an overview of the talks, you can visit the Symposium website or download a print version of the programme.

We will be reporting from the Symposium to update you on what was discussed in the sessions via the Symposium website and using #alssymp via our Twitter account @mndassoc.

Motor Neuron murder mystery: who killed Mr Motor Neuron?

This blog is a fabricated story inspired by the current knowledge of MND.

Today, we wake to news that Mr Motor Neuron (one of the brightest stars in Hollywood) has been killed. A very specialised actor, he was well known for his lightning fast reactions and action-packed roles, often playing characters that had very important messages to deliver.

The alarm was first raised at 2am, when Neuron was found dead in the kitchen of his house by the cleaner, Miss Phagocyte. Dr Riluzole was called and attempted CPR, but nothing could be done to revive him. Early speculation is that he may have been poisoned with a highly toxic protein substance. Neuron’s bodyguards (hired from the prestigious company MicroGlia) have also gone missing, leading many to believe that they too have been murdered. Continue reading

11th Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Fellowship awarded

We are delighted to announce that Dr Arpan Mehta has been appointed as our latest Lady Edith Wolfson Fellow, jointly funded by the MND Association and Medical Research Council.  This clinical research training fellowship will help to launch his career as an aspiring academic neurologist, providing comprehensive training in cellular, molecular and bioinformatics technologies in a world-class environment. Continue reading

New ALS review article available

ammar2.jpgLast week, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a review article by Professors Ammar Al-Chalabi and Robert Brown, in which they looked at the up to date evidence on the incidence of ALS, pathological mechanisms of the disease, as well as genetics and therapeutic strategies.

We would very much like to thank the NEJM who kindly allowed us to share full text of this article on our website – this is now available to view here.

Epi Epi Epi, Oi Oi Oi

Mention the word Epidemiology and instantly my mind conjures up the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in America being swarmed by zombies or men in bright orange astronaut-type suits in The Crazies.  While it’s true that it includes studying highly infectious diseases and how they spread (zombies and end of world scenarios aside!), it can be applied to any disease.

Having spent much of my time in the last year working on the data that was collected from our recent epidemiology study, I was keen to shout about the fact that the data is now ready for researchers to use. The analysis of this data will add great value to samples that we already have in our DNA Bank.

What is Epidemiology?

Continue reading

Using surface EMG to see if fasciculations can be used as a biomarker for MND

What are fasciculations?

When motor neurones in the spinal cord become damaged this makes them electrically unstable, meaning they spontaneously discharge electrical impulses that cause small groups of muscles to contract. These contractions, known as fasciculations, are a common symptom of MND. Research suggests that they might be a good marker of motor neurone health.

Tracking fasciculations with surface EMG

Prof Chris Shaw

Prof Chris Shaw

Led by researchers Prof Chris Shaw and Prof Kerry Mills, Dr James Bashford is using technology called surface EMG to collect data on the site and frequency of fasciculations in different muscles in people with MND. Fasciculations in people with MND are different to benign fasciculations, which can occur in people without the disease and are generally harmless. James and the team hope to show that fasciculations in those with MND have a unique ‘fingerprint’ which can be accurately identified and tracked.

Data collected will be compared to other information currently used to track the progression of MND. James and the team hope surface EMG might provide a more sensitive way of measuring disease progression than previously used methods. This one year feasibility study is being carried out at King’s College London at a cost of £95,000 (our reference: 932-794). Continue reading

Investigating miRNAs as a biomarker for MND

There is a critical need to find a biomarker for MND to speed up diagnosis, monitor disease progression and improve clinical trials. A biomarker is a biological change that can be detected in a person to signal that they have MND, and that can be measured over time to monitor how the disease is progressing.

Previous research has suggested micro RNAs (miRNAs) present in the blood might be a biomarker for MND. miRNAs are short forms of RNA, the cell’s copy of our genetic material DNA. They are stable in the blood, can be easily measured with a blood test, and evidence suggests that they are linked to MND progression. To put it simply, if the biomarker hunt was a music festival, miRNAs would be a headlining act that a lot of people are excited about! Continue reading