MND isn’t just about motor neurones going wrong in an otherwise perfectly functioning nervous system. A group of cells called glia, which surround motor neurones and normally provide them with support and nourishment, can dysfunction too. It’s likely that they even hold most of the cards when it comes to determining how MND progresses, so they’re not to be overlooked. One of the ‘Dons’ (excuse the pun…) of glial cell research in MND, Don Cleveland, opened this session with an overview of how each type of glial cell contributes to the cause of MND. He concluded this part of his talk by saying that the toxicity within different cell types come together to kill motor neurones. Work has now begun on the development of therapies utilizing what we know about these support cells, including plans for an early safety study (phase 1) of a stem cell astrocyte therapy in 2014. I know that this sounds like a long time away, but I would refer you to my post on Nicholas Boulis presentation to understand why!
With the benefits of hindsight, one the most telling questions for Professor Cleveland was what about the role of oligodendrocytes in MND – which are a type of brain cell. He replied that the answer to this would be clear by the end of the session – and it certainly was! An animated and excited Professor Rothstein got up to speak a few talks later. The statements on his opening slide said it all: “ALS is a disorder of oligodendroglial cells” and “Oligodendrocytes are a dominant neuronal support”. It was a whistle-stop tour through a lot of different types of experiments. Perhaps the most striking of these was the study where removing damaged SOD1 proteins from oligodendrocytes increased the survival by 126 days in SOD1 mice. He concluded that there was still an enormous amount to do to understand the role of these cells.
This session gave Laura Ferraiuolo, a young MND researcher whose career was kick-started by an Association-funded PhD, a chance to showcase her most recent work. During her PhD, Laura learned how to use a cutting edge technique that allows detailed analysis of subtle changes in the genetic code and how it is being ‘interpreted’ by motor neurones. During her presentation today, Laura explained how she has now applied this technique to astrocytes, a type of nerve support cell, and provided the audience with some insight into possible astrocyte-related disease mechanisms. Laura is the embodiment of what the Association’s PhD studentship programme aims to achieve – to draw promising young scientists into a productive career in MND research.