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.

Tackling weight loss in MND – from ProGas to PostGas

Swallowing problems are an incredibly common cause of malnutrition and weight loss in MND patients. To add to this, weight loss in MND is associated with shorter survival. This means managing swallowing problems effectively is crucial to ensuring people living with MND can have the best possible quality of life.

Managing swallowing problems using gastrostomy

Swallowing problems in MND are often managed by placing a feeding tube directly into a patient’s stomach – this is known as a gastrostomy. The feeding tube can either be placed into the stomach via the mouth, or directly from outside the body.

An MND Association-funded study that concluded in 2015 provided much needed evidence on the best method and timing for gastrostomy. This study, known as ProGas, was led by Professor Chris McDermott at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN).

What were the results of ProGas?

Essentially, ProGas found that the method used for gastrostomy didn’t affect patient’s survival after the procedure. However, the greater the weight loss, from diagnosis to the time gastrostomy was performed, the worse the patient’s survival after the procedure.

To emphasise this point, of the patients who’d lost over 10% of their diagnosis weight at the time of gastrostomy, only 4% actually gained weight after the procedure, whereas 82% continued losing weight. Overall, they found that approximately 50% of patients lose weight in the three months following gastrostomy, irrespective of how much weight they lost before the procedure.

Naturally, these results raise questions about how effectively gastrostomy manages nutrition and weight loss. It is possible these results could be due to the natural disease progression. However, they could also be due to variation in symptom management methods after gastrostomy.

Tackling weight loss after gastrostomy

The MND Association has recently started funding a follow up project, known as PostGas, which aims to provide urgently needed evidence-based guidance on the best clinical practice for managing nutrition and weight loss after gastrostomy. This project started in June 2017 and is also led by Professor McDermott’s team at SITraN. One of the researchers in the team, Dr Haris Stavroulakis, recently presented their ProGas findings and introduced the PostGas study at our regional conference in York – you can view Dr Stavroulakis’ talk online.

What is the plan for PostGas?

A detailed survey asking what protocols doctors currently follow and what advice they give to patients after gastrostomy will be given to doctors at 24 specialist MND clinics across the UK. For example, doctors will be asked how they calculate the caloric intake requirements of their patients and what feeding plans they recommend.

Patients will then be recruited and followed for nine months after gastrostomy to monitor changes in factors such as weight and BMI, as well as self-perceived quality of life. These factors will be assessed 3, 6 and 9 months post-gastrostomy. Survival rates after the procedure will also be observed to see if different management methods have an effect on this.

Hopefully, PostGas will provide doctors with evidence-based guidance on how to improve nutrition and limit weight loss in people with MND after gastrostomy. Ultimately, this might extend patients’ survival and improve their quality of life.

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

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

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

Shining a light on our non-clinical fellow: Using blue light to control muscle movement

The MND Association is proud to support the brightest minds of MND research. Outside of general healthcare and biomedical project grants that are usually awarded to senior researchers, we also offer opportunities to young researchers – these take the form of PhD studentships and fellowships.

Fellowships are awarded to post-doctoral researchers who are able to support a research project as the leading investigator. Depending on their qualifications, the fellowship can either be clinical (for healthcare professionals) or non-clinical (for researchers with purely academic background). In the last round of non-clinical fellowship applications in October 2016, the MND Association awarded a senior fellowship to Dr Barney Bryson of University College London. In his upcoming project, due to start in August 2017, he will follow up on the findings he found together with his team, led by Prof Linda Greensmith. Continue reading

Life of an MND researcher: part 1

Each year, the MND Association dedicates the month of June to raising MND awareness. This year, we focus on the eyes – in most people with MND the only part of their body they can still move and the only way left for them to communicate. Alongside the Association-wide campaign, the Research Development team selected six most-enquired about topics, which we will address through six dedicated blogs.

We all know that rigorous research is the key to finding a cure for MND. Scientists are working hard every day to find the causes of MND, developing new treatments that would help tackle the disease and also looking for new ways to improve the quality of life of people currently living with the disease. But what does it take to have research at heart of everything you do? What is the typical day in the life of a researcher and what does carrying out a research study actually involves?

We asked eight researchers to give us an idea of what their research is all about and what their typical day looks like. Read about four of them in the following blog and keep an eye out for ‘Part 2: PhD edition‘ in the next few days… Continue reading

ANXA11 – another gene closer to understanding ALS

A new research paper has been published today in the Science Translational Medicine journal, describing a new gene implicated in developing MND. What is this gene and why is it important for our fight against MND?

Although they are not the sole cause of MND, genes play a big role in someone’s probability of developing the disease. A number of such genes that make a person susceptible to developing MND have already been identified, with most of them causing the rarer, inherited form of the disease.

A new addition to a list of genes that are related to development of ALS, the most common form of MND, has been discovered by researchers from King’s College London. Dr Bradley Smith and colleagues screened genetic data of an unusually high number of people of European origin: 751 with inherited – familial – ALS (fALS) and 180 with non-inherited – sporadic – ALS (sALS). Detailed analysis of this data found that specific mutations in the ANXA11 gene are associated with around 1% of all fALS and 1.7% of all sALS cases. Continue reading

Focus on the research presented in posters in Dublin

Over 100 talks were given at this month’s International Symposium on ALS/MND in Dublin. There were also over 450 posters of research being presented too. Time in the conference programme was allocated on Wednesday and Thursday evening (day 1 and day 2 of the 3 day conference) to visit the posters – you might think that scheduled at the end of the day they would be less well attended – but not a bit of it! It was an extremely loud and buzzy part of the conference.

Below is a brief round-up of some of the posters that caught my eye. Continue reading

Using stem cell technology to understand more about how MND and FTD develop

The MND Association are funding Prof Kevin Talbot, Dr Ruxandra Dafinca (née Mutihac) and colleagues at the University of Oxford, who are investigating the link between the C9orf72 and TDP-43 genes in MND. We wrote about this research earlier in the year. As we’ve recently received their first year progress report we wanted to give you an update on what they’ve achieved. Continue reading