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

‘Hothouse’ meeting on drug discovery

Sadie’s recent post on the emerging partnership between Peakdale Molecular and the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience prompted me to say a little about last month’s Drug Discovery Workshop, held in Washington DC and organised our friends at the ALS Association.

I was fortunate to be invited along to this workshop, which brought together over 100 representatives from industry, academia, drug regulators and government and charitable funding agencies, to share their findings and discuss the future directions and opportunities for MND drug discovery. ‘Hothouse’ meetings like these are vital in giving those working in academic labs an important insight into the complexities of turning new knowledge of disease processes into ‘druggable’ compounds.

Those from industry get to see the new theories that are coming out of the academic labs, while the funders can start to identify where targeted early-stage support may help to encourage industry to follow up with the larger-scale investment needed to take ideas from bench to bedside At a time when some of the biggest drug companies are pulling back from working in neurodegeneration, the mood at the meeting might have been muted, but delegates were positively upbeat. One cause for optimism is that some companies, such as Biogen Idec, have seized the opportunity to fill the gap and increase their investment in this area.

Moreover, universities around the world have benefitted from an influx of new staff with extensive expertise in drug discovery, strengthening one of their historical areas of weaknesses. Universities are generally very good at unpicking the complex biological processes that occur in health and disease, but very poor at turning this knowledge into treatments. Another reason for the optimistic mood at the meeting was the clutch of new gene discoveries that occurred last year, in particular the identification of the chromosome 9 form of MND  which promises to open up many of new secrets of the disease. Researchers have collectively now found about two-thirds of all the causes of familial MND. As we identify more causes, generate better models and home in on the common cellular changes that drive the disease, the opportunities for drug development are going to increase.

Meetings such as this help focus attention on the major challenges – but also the exciting opportunities – that lie ahead.

Top neuroimaging researchers meet in Oxford

Hot on the heels of Kelly’s posting on Tuesday on the new MRI findings by researchers at Oxford, the same group was yesterday hosting the 1st Neuroimaging Symposium in ALS/MND – a three-day conference, co sponsored by the MND Association, bringing together neurologists, physicists and psychologists from ten different countries across the world. I attended the opening day to see what was happening.

Such is the technical nature of neuroimaging, it kept my brain cells firing just trying to understand the jargon, with phrases like ‘Warped Space’, ‘Deformation Field’  ‘Jacobian Modulation’, ‘Voxels’, Biased Field Correction’ and so on. It was like hearing a script from Star Trek…

“The engines canna’ take it captain – that last hit from the Voxels damaged the deformation field. If I canna’ correct the biased field we’ll fall oot o’ warped space.”  

Whether or not I actually understood everything, it reinforced the importance of these ‘hothouse’ meetings, bringing together leading investigators from distinct disciplines to review the strengths and current limitations of their field of research, to look ahead at future developments in the field, to develop standards for collating and analysing data from many centres across the world and, most importantly, to find ways of collaborating more effectively.

I’m a great believer in not reinventing the wheel, so it was good to hear a presentation from the field of multiple sclerosis (MS) research. Neuroimaging has transformed MS research, being used to monitor the disease and provide an objective way of assess the impact of treatments, thus encouraging more drug companies to try to develop therapies.

The MS field has a long-standing imaging network and so part of the first day was devoted to looking at how we might learn from their experience and adapt their model for the needs of the MND research community. Of course, the MS network was kicked off by a large grant from the European Union, so an additional challenge for the MND research community will be to find the funding to allow these international collaborations to take place.

By 6pm my brain was full, so I headed back to Northampton, leaving the other delegates to another two days of serious ‘hard-core’ science…