Introducing the Research Programmes and Partnerships Manager

As I settle into my role as the Research Programmes and Partnerships Manager with the MND Association, I would like to take the opportunity to introduce myself to you all and share with you what my role will entail.

My background is mainly in genetic laboratories (even having the opportunity to extract and test DNA from ancient Egyptian Mummies), although I have worked in a tissue typing laboratory (to make sure that the recipient of a donated organ and the donor matched to avoid the chance of the organ being rejected) as well as a Phase I clinical trials laboratory. Immediately prior to starting with the MND Association, I worked as a Senior Scientific Project Manager for one of the UK’s largest biorepositories, responsible for setting up studies, and collection, processing, storage and shipping of samples. Continue reading

Our DNA Bank: the times they are a changing..

DNABankLogoThis autumn sees an exciting new development in the MND Association’s DNA Bank. Researchers can now use the samples within it to understand why motor neurones die as well as what the triggers are for MND.

How the DNA Bank began

Beginning in 2003 and running until 2012, approximately 1,500 people with MND, 1,000 healthy ‘controls’ – often the partner or spouse of someone with MND – and a further 500 members of families affected by MND gave a blood sample to help researchers understand more about the genetic causes of MND.

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Matrin 3 gene identified

Following on from our ’year of hope’ appeal last month an international team of researchers, including two funded by the MND Association, have identified mutations in the Matrin 3 (MATR3) gene as a cause of the rare inherited form of MND.

Medical Research Council (MRC)/ MND Association Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellow Dr Pietro Fratta was involved in the research, which was published on 30 March 2014 in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience.

Inherited MND is a rare form of MND (5-10% of total MND cases) and the MATR3 gene is the latest to be identified. This rare form of MND is characterised by a family history of MND.

New gene, new gene

When a new gene is first identified this creates a great deal of ‘buzz’ amongst the MND research community, often generating more questions than answers:

  • How common is this inherited MND gene?
  • How does this gene cause MND?

This is the starting point for MATR3. Unfortunately, we just don’t know the answers to these questions at the moment. Hopefully MND researchers will now use the discovery of MATR3 to find the answers to these questions and further our understanding of this gene.

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New MND Association Lectureship in Translational Neuroscience

Dr Richard Mead based at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) at the University of Sheffield has been awarded the Kenneth Snowman-MND Association Lectureship in Translational Neuroscience.

Dr Richard Mead, SITraN, UK

Dr Richard Mead, SITraN, UK

The five-year Kenneth Snowman-MND Association lectureship is aimed to embed preclinical expertise in motor neurone disease (MND) models within SITraN as a national resource.

Our Director of Research Development at the Association, Dr Brian Dickie, commented: “We are delighted to be able to help secure the position of an outstanding young scientist at one of the top European centres for MND research.

“Our understanding of the causes of MND and the reasons why motor neurons degenerate is increasing rapidly and we need more researchers like Dr Mead who are ideally placed to move this new understanding from the laboratory to the clinic.”

Read more about this story on our website: New MND Association Lectureship in Translational Neuroscience.

MND stem cell study identifies TDP-43 astrocytes as not toxic to motor neurones

Funded by the MND Association, international researchers have used stem cell technology to learn more about the relationship between motor neurones and their support cells.

These findings highlight the potential of stem cell technology as a tool to create new human ‘in a dish’ cellular models of disease to learn more about the causes of MND.

Prof Siddharthan Chandran and Sir Prof Ian Wilmut at University of Edinburgh looking at a stem cell image

The research group included MND Association funded researchers Prof Siddharthan Chandran and Sir Prof Ian Wilmut from University of Edinburgh, Prof Chris Shaw from King’s College London and Prof Tom Maniatis from Columbia University in America.

This important finding was published in the scientific journal PNAS on 11 February 2013. This new finding follows on from previous work published by this research group in 2012 where they demonstrated the proof of principle of creating human motor neurones with MND in a dish.

Why we need an astrocyte model of MND

Astrocytes, so called because of their star-like appearance, normally act as neurone support cells to nourish and protect motor neurones. They act with motor neurones to ensure that they can continue to function.

From previous studies, we know that when these cells begin to dysfunction, they can become toxic to motor neurones to contribute to MND. Finding out why astrocytes can cause motor neurones to degenerate is an issue of ongoing debate – we recently gave an update on this from the International Symposium.

Being able to grow human astrocytes in a laboratory dish is of importance to be able to learn more about the relationship between astrocytes and motor neurones in MND.

Creating human astrocytes in a dish

Using cutting-edge stem cell technology, the research group reprogrammed skin cells into astrocytes in a laboratory dish. The skin cells were donated by people with MND who have a family history of the disease caused by known mistakes in a gene called TDP-43.

Led by Prof Chandran and colleagues, the research group aimed to identify whether these cells would develop the ‘hallmarks’ of MND in a laboratory dish.

By studying the characteristics of these human astrocytes with faults in the TDP-43 gene, the research group identified that they shared the same qualities as cells affected by MND. The astrocytes had increased levels of TDP-43 found in areas where it isn’t usually found – outside of the control centre of the cell. They also found that the astrocytes didn’t survive as long as astrocytes created from skin cells of people that didn’t have MND.

This means that the human astrocytes created by Prof Chandran and colleagues using stem cell technology develop MND-like characteristics. This new model can be used to study how motor neurones develop the disease in a system that is directly relevant to people living with MND.

Answering whether faulty astrocytes affect healthy motor neurones

The next question that this research group wanted to answer was whether these faulty astrocytes had an effect on healthy motor neurones.

By growing faulty TDP-43 astrocytes with healthy motor neurones, the research group identified that the survival of motor neurones was not adversely affected.

This was surprising as other research groups have shown that when astrocytes have faults in the SOD1 gene (which cause one in five cases of MND with a family history) that motor neurones are compromised, even if the motor neurones were originally healthy.

TDP-43 is found within tangled lumps in over 90% of cases of MND (irrespective of whether it was caused by an inherited genetic mistake). However, when MND is caused by SOD1, TDP-43 is not found in these tangled lumps. This important difference could be leading to the key difference in whether astrocytes become toxic to contribute to causing MND.

These findings will of course need to be verified by an independent research group to determine that they are valid, but the results suggests that SOD1 and TDP-43 could be causing havoc in motor neurones in slightly different ways, both avenues leading to MND.

Our Director of Research Development, Dr Brian Dickie comments: “From a therapeutic perspective this is important because it means that specific treatments targeted at astrocytes may only be relevant and effective, in specific subsets of patients who will have to be carefully selected for drug trials.”

References:

Our news release on this finding.

March 2012 finding: Association-funded stem cell study achieves milestone

Serio A et al. Astrocyte pathology and the absence of non-cell autonomy in an induced pluripotent stem cell model of TDP-43 proteinopathy. PNAS 2013

MND Association funded researcher Dr Martin Turner wins ENCALS Young Investigator Award

We’re pleased to announce that Dr Martin Turner has been awarded with the European Network for the Cure of ALS (ENCALS) Young Investigators Award 2012.

Dr Martin Turner

Dr Martin Turner, MRC/MND Association Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellow

Dr Turner was awarded with the MRC/ MND Association Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellowship in 2008 for his study to identify biomarkers in MND (called BioMOx). Since then, Dr Turner has already published two findings from his five-year disease marker study in the prestigious journals Neurology and Brain. Using advanced brain scanning technology, his study has identified a common pattern of nerve damage in the brains of MND patients. This holds the promise of a much-needed disease marker.

Talking about why he thinks the ENCALS award is so important, Dr Turner said:

“The ENCALS award marks a major highlight in my career.”

“I am passionate about MND, and feel privileged to help care for those living with the most challenging of diseases. To be recognised as having made a useful contribution to research as well, by international leaders in the field, means an enormous amount.

“It is 13 years since I began as a PhD student under Professor Nigel Leigh, whose ground-breaking ideas about brain changes in MND first sparked my interest. I was fortunate to meet Professor Kevin Talbot in 2003, and through his support and partnership I have been able to develop these ideas alongside leading brain imaging neuroscientists at Oxford University.

“I have never felt more sure that progress is accelerating in MND research, and I am pleased to be adding something to the wider global effort.”

Funding promising researchers

One of our research aims, is to develop the research workforce. Dr Turner talks more about how our funding has helped to develop his career:

“The Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellowship scheme, uniquely linked to the Government-funded Medical Research Council through the MND Association, has been critical to my development as an MND researcher.

“These highly competitive 5-year Fellowships don’t simply provide the funding for the experimental studies, but crucially allow me to devote most of my time as a consultant neurologist solely to the care and research of MND patients. There is no simple way to specialise like this within the standard NHS framework, and such schemes are a vital way to help develop a strong UK academic neurology workforce in MND.”

Commenting on this story, our Director of Research Development, Dr Brian Dickie said “We’re delighted that one of our Lady Edith Wolfson Fellows has won this prestigious international award. The Fellowships were created to attract and retain the brightest and the best young clinicians to MND research and it is a fitting tribute to the knowledge, expertise and dedication that Dr Turner brings to this important field of MND research.”

More information:

Our official news release

Go to the BioMOx website to find out more about this project

Find out more about ENCALS

Our research aims

BioMOx findings: