Cogane produces encouraging results in MND Association-funded study

Prof Linda Greensmith
Prof Linda Greensmith

Thanks to funding and some strategic ‘match-making’ by the MND Association, a new drug may have taken one step closer to beginning clinical trials in MND after producing promising results in an animal model of the disease.

The drug, known as Cogane, was developed by the biotechnology company Phytopharm. It had already demonstrated in laboratory tests that it could help to protect neurones by promoting the production of natural, nerve nourishing substances called neurotrophic factors and early animal testing had hinted at its potential beneficial effects in MND. However, its journey towards clinical testing in MND had hit a road block because it hadn’t been extensively put through its paces in large numbers of the most widely used animal model of the disease, the SOD1 mouse. Without robust data from this model, there would have been little to encourage further investment in Cogane’s development.

So up stepped the Association to introduce Phytopharm to Professor Linda Greensmith at University College London, a leading MND researcher with considerable expertise in SOD1 mouse testing. With funding from the Association, Prof Greensmith and her team were able to conduct a rigorous study of the effects of Cogane, administered to the mice after they had developed MND-like symptoms.

The drug produced some significant improvements in muscle strength and motor neurone survival and managed to produce positive effects even in mice that had reached the later stages of the disease. To give more substance to these preliminary but very encouraging results, the research team will now go on to the painstaking work of examining more closely Cogane’s effects on the motor neurones and other key cells that play a critical role in the progression of MND. 

After the disappointment of the Trophos trial results, it’s great to be able to share some positive news on the drug development front. We know from long experience that it’s wise to limit our excitement over positive results from the mouse model – after all, plenty of drugs have shown promise at this stage and have then gone on to fail in clinical trials. However, Prof Greensmith’s experience and expertise mean that Cogane will have been tested with the utmost rigor. As she herself commented, the results indicate that “Cogane has significant potential as a therapy for ALS and merits further evaluation”.  We don’t yet know what Phytopharm’s next steps will be – these may become clearer once the more detailed data from Prof Greensmith’s work have been published, which could take the best part of a year. Let’s hope that we have a given Cogane enough of a boost to push it out of the drug development ‘doldrums’.

Read the Phytopharm press release.

Our DNA bank appeal to feature on BBC Radio 4

Sunday 8 January is not only a celebration of Prof Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday, it’s also the date when the MND Association’s DNA bank appeal will be launched on BBC Radio 4.

Our DNA bank contains over 3,400 samples from people with MND and their families.  By using these samples scientists in this country have already made significant discoveries into the causes of MND. To advance research into MND we now want to make the DNA bank available to researchers across the world. To do this, we’re asking people to donate funds to the BBC Radio 4 charity appeal for our DNA bank. All money raised through the appeal will go towards maintaining the samples and making them accessible to worldwide researchers. It will take a global research effort to beat MND, and the DNA bank is a very important tool in the fight against the disease.

Samples from the DNA bank will help scientists identify genes that cause familial (inherited) MND or those that influence susceptibility to sporadic MND. This will offer crucial insight into the causes of MND. Understanding the causes of MND will lead to the development of new treatments.

To listen to the broadcast narrated by Joss Ackland, listen in on Sunday 8 January at 7:55am or 9:26pm to BBC Radio 4. This will also be repeated on Thursday 12 January at 3:27pm, or you can listen again after the broadcast.

More information:
DNA bank samples are currently being used in a number of studies investigating the causes of familial and sporadic MND. For more information, please see the DNA bank pages of our website.

If you contributed a sample to our DNA bank, you can find out more about what happens to samples after they’re donated in our information sheet, and in our Thumb Print article from 2010.

Read our press release on this story.

Happy New Year – Quiz answers and round up of 2011!

And the answers to our Christmas Quiz are:

  1. How many neurones does a human have? Billions
  2. Which animal has the largest brain? Bottlenose dolphin
  3. How much does a human brain weigh in comparison with our total average body weight (in percent)? 2
  4. How many DNA samples does the MND Association’s DNA bank hold? 3,400
  5. How many research projects do we currently fund? 44
  6. How much does our research project portfolio currently come to? £7.6m
  7. How many PhD studentships do we currently fund? 12
  8. How many times a year do we have research grant funding rounds? 2
  9. How many unproven MND treatments have ALSUntangled investigated so far? 13
  10. How many stem cell research projects do we fund? 2

At the beginning of a new year, it’s always encouraging to look back on how far we’ve come. The list of MND research achievements continues to grow exponentially every year, and I’m pleased to say that last year was no exception, demonstrating that we really are living in exciting times.

2011 had some important discoveries in the world of MND research to find the answers to what causes MND. A number of MND causing gene mistakes were discovered including C9ORF72, Ubiquilin2 and SQSTM1. With these findings, we now know the cause of approximately 70% of cases of inherited MND – a massive leap from approximately 25-30% of known genetic mistakes the previous year.

Within the team, we’ve also made some promising headway toward our aims set out in our research strategy, by funding and promoting cutting edge research both within the UK and around the world. For example, our groundbreaking biomarker project led by Dr Martin Turner at Oxford yielded its second set of promising results, just three years into the five-year project. Dr Martin Turner also gave an enthralling talk at last year’s International Symposium on ALS/MND on neuroimaging (brain scanning) and he’s regarded as ‘the man’ to speak to in terms of MND neuroimaging on an international level.

As well as the research projects that we fund yielding positive results, and following progress on an international level, we’re also a major player in promoting research. The key to defeating MND lies in fostering strong collaboration between leading researchers around the world  and sharing new understanding of the disease as rapidly as possible. In 2011, we made two huge steps in this:

In January 2011, in conjunction with two leading members of the International Consortium of Stem Cell Networks (the Canadian Stem Cell Network and the UK Stem Cell Network), The New York Stem Cell Foundation and the ALS Association of the USA, we organised an MND stem cell conference. Our workshop brought together 60 of the world’s leading stem cell research experts to shape the development of future international MND stem cell research and to form new research collaborations. We were privileged to organise this event and the research community now have a solid foundation of understanding of where we are in terms of MND stem cell research. Dr Brian Dickie, our Director of Research now also has the honour of being a co-author on the scientific paper from the conference – published in the journal ALS.

In July 2011, we made a further step forward in sharing new understanding rapidly by joining a group of research-funding organisations to fund UK PubMed Central, an online research database containing over two million research articles. This is the first step in the Association’s aim to establish a comprehensive resource for the global MND research community.

We also had a fantastic year for improving the way we fund research and maintaining our high standards.

For our first grants round of the year, a record-breaking 19 full applications were considered for funding by our Biomedical Research Advisory Panel. Only one in five research applications is considered of a high enough standard for funding, but through our rigorous process we can provide our donors with the assurance that they are supporting the ‘very best of the best’ MND research.

Before our second grants round, we announced the successful launch of our online summary application form for researchers applying for grants and PhD studentships. By evolving our summary application process to use an online system, we are able to ensure that our high standards are maintained and that we are using our time efficiently and effectively to fund high-quality research.

We also proudly received our certificate for best practice for our rigorous procedures for funding research from the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) in the UK with a comment saying that we are “considered as setting the standard within the audit”.

You can find out more information on the research projects we currently fund on our research we fund information sheet.

One of our highlights from last year, and the result of over a year’s work in preparation from the research team and our conference team, was the International Symposium on ALS/MND held in Sydney, Australia. We are proud to organise this vital worldwide event every year, and are pleased that last year was successful. Holding the event in different countries around the world enables us to draw new people into the international research community, bringing new ideas and expertise to the field and creating new alliances in the fight against MND.

We took you behind the scenes of last year’s symposium by writing daily blog articles on a multitude of topics. If you’ve not already read these, you can find an introduction to these with links on our blog. Please remember to complete our survey on what you thought of our reporting, as it really helps us to determine whether we should continue to report from the symposium, and whether we should change anything.

We’ve definitely set the bar in 2011 and have a lot to live up to in 2012. We’re really looking forward to see what 2012 holds for MND research, and we hope that you’ll continue to follow our progress on our blog throughout the year.

We wish you a very Happy New Year from all of us in the Research Development Team at the MND Association.