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.

It’s not just about the neurones

Long before the latest wave of cellular and molecular biology advances started to give us new information on what was going on at the cellular level in MND, some doctors had observed that if the disease started in one particular part of the body, it would be neighbouring parts that became affected next.  This suggested that the disease usually starts in a single part of the brain or spinal cord before spreading further, like ripples in a pond.

How this happens is not well understood. It is likely that there are a number of processes going on, but they can broadly be divided into two theories. One of these is that damaged proteins can leak out of sick neurons and ‘infect’ their neighbours – a subject we have discussed at previous international Symposia. Continue reading

Libraries, Doormen and Harry Potter

I usually travel to London two to three times a month for meetings and lab visits. If I’ve got any length of spare time, I head for what I call my ‘London office’ – aka the British Library. It’s close to Euston station, it’s free (!) it has a nice café for informal meetings and it has copies of all the latest textbooks and major research journals.

The way in which a cell turns its genetic instructions into the protein ‘building blocks’ it needs to function and survive is sometimes compared to a library. Continue reading

Lighthouse Project shines a beacon on HERVs and their role in ALS

There is recent evidence to suggest that Human Endogenous Retroviruses (HERVs) may be involved in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). HERV-K has been directly linked to motor neurone damage and has been found in the brain tissue of patients with ALS.

The MND Association recently awarded a small grant to fund part of the ‘Lighthouse Project’ which is investigating the safety and any beneficial effects of an antiretroviral drug on ALS symptoms. Continue reading

Networking to progress in the world of science: Mini-Symposium on MND

Conferences and symposia are a crucial part of the research world – not only for the amount of knowledge that is communicated to large audiences but also for the exchange of ideas on a more inter-personal level. Novel ideas are created there as well establishment of collaborations that might lead to new research projects and clinical trials – all in all, putting a bunch of researchers in a venue with a projector, coffee and biscuits can only lead to good things!

One of the recent events that I had the pleasure to attend was a small-scale conference – the Mini-Symposium on generic disease mechanisms in MND and other neurodegenerative disorders. Held at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in late June, this event was a precursor to the inauguration of a new MND Care and Research Centre for Sussex, directed by Prof Nigel Leigh. Continue reading

Investigating the role of the cell’s waste disposal systems in TDP-linked MND

In April 2016, Dr Jackie Mitchell gave a talk at the Regional Conference in Gatwick to explain the aims of her three year MND Association funded research project. We have now received her second year report. In this blog we explain a little bit more about what she’s been doing. She has already made some good progress.

A little bit of background
One known genetic cause of MND is a defect in the TARDBP gene, which makes the protein TDP-43, that can be found in the nucleus of a healthy cell. The nucleus is the part of the cell that contains all our DNA. Healthy cells also have two major ‘waste disposal systems’ which break down and remove unwanted proteins from cells. More information on the role of TDP-43 in MND can be found on our blog. 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.

Closing the door on toxic proteins – new clues in understanding a genetic form of MND

The defects in the C9orf72 gene are known to cause motor neurone disease, but researchers don’t understand why. Defective copies of this gene are passed down in some families affected by the rare, inherited form of MND. This week MND Association grantees Drs Guillaume Hautbergue, Lydia Castelli and colleagues, based at the Sheffield Institute of Translational Neuroscience have published their research study providing some important clues about the toxicity of C9orf72. Their research is published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications. Continue reading

Exploring the interaction between TDP-43 and RNA

In light of the upcoming Biomedical Research Advisory Panel meeting happening on Friday 7 April that will discuss which new research projects the MND Association will fund, we are pleased to report on the progress of one of our already-funded researchers. In their three year project, funded by the MND Association, Prof Annalisa Pastore (King’s College London) and Prof Gian Tartaglia (University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona) are investigating the process by which TDP-43 binds to RNA. Below is a summary of the progress they made during their first year.

Background to the project

Alumni Board Meeting 2008

Annalisa Pastore, King’s College London

One of the causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the most common type of motor neurone disease (MND), is related to faulty functioning of the TDP-43 protein, a component that is naturally present in all of our cells. In healthy cells, TDP-43 resides in the centre of a cell (the nucleus) where it attaches to RNA and supports correct gene expression – that is, it helps to extract information carried by a gene to form proteins, the main building blocks of our bodies.

Continue reading

More clues to the inner workings of the C9orf72 gene

Continuing the ‘gene hunting theme’ on from our last blog post on Project MinE, a recently published study has shed more light on the C9orf72 gene mutation.

The C9orf72 gene mutation is the most common cause of the rare inherited form of MND (about 40% of all people with inherited MND have this mutation). Some people with the sporadic form of MND also have this mutation, and it has been linked to the development of a type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

Figuring out the normal function of C9orf72

A study by Jacqueline O’Rourke and colleagues at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles used mice that lacked the equivalent gene to C9orf72.

When this gene was absent, the mice developed normally and their motor nerve cells were unaffected.

From this evidence they discounted one of theories about the C9orf72 mutation – that a change to the gene stops it working entirely and that this affects the health of motor neurons. Continue reading