New fellowship awarded to further our understanding of RNA in MND

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Dr Pietro Fratta (University College London) received his initial Training Fellowship through the MND Association/ Medical Research Council (MRC) Lady Edith Wolfson Programme in 2010. Starting on 1 February 2015, Dr Fratta was awarded a Clinician Scientist Fellowship to continue his research into MND.

Totalling £1.16 million, of which the Association has committed to contribute £280,000, this new fellowship will allow Dr Fratta to find out what RNA molecules are present in both the cell body of the motor neuron, and the nerve fibres.

What is RNA?

A nerve cell creates a protein by finding the exact DNA recipe amongst the thousands of genes within the cell’s control centre, known as the nucleus. Once the gene has been found the cell needs a specialised machine, which is only found outside of the nucleus, called a ribosome to turn the gene into a protein.

In order to make the protein the DNA needs to travel from the nucleus to the ribosome and this is done by means of a messenger. DNA can’t leave the nucleus so the cell ‘copies’ it into a messenger version, called messenger RNA (mRNA).

mRNA can then travel the specific gene safely from the nucleus to the ribosome, where it can be finally made into a protein. Once made, this protein can then go on to do its specific job role (find out more here).

Why is RNA important in MND research?

The way in which MND causes the motor neurone to die is complex, involving several different mechanisms (eg support cell toxicity and transport disruption). RNA disruption has been increasingly recognised by researchers as a cause of MND, but how this happens and why it causes motor neurones to die is still a bit of a mystery.

Dr Pietro Fratta (University College London)
Dr Pietro Fratta (University College London)

Dr Fratta is hoping to establish if the transport of RNA molecules along the nerve fibres is impaired and if so, whether there are particular versions of RNA that are particularly important for motor neuron health and survival.

Dr Fratta said: “I am extremely excited about having been awarded this fellowship as this will allow me to address what I believe are extremely important questions regarding the mechanism of MND.

“During my previous Clinical Research Training fellowship I was able to train in an exceptional basic research environment by addressing questions regarding the basic biology underlying MND. Advances in research typically lead to further, although more refined, questions to answer. The Clinician Scientist Fellowship will allow me to build a research team to address the new questions that I believe are most relevant to MND.”

What does Dr Fratta hope to achieve during his fellowship?

Dr Fratta explained: “In the last five years, MND research has focused on errors in RNA, the messenger molecule that allows our cells to carry out the information contained in our genes. This is a very generic biological process. During this Fellowship I will be investigating a more targeted question: how these mistakes in RNA impact on motor neuron axons, the long processes that connect our spinal cord to the muscles and that degenerate in MND. The goal is to identify processes that are central to MND mechanism in order to then develop more effective strategies to develop treatment strategies.”

Dr Brian Dickie, Director of Research Development

Our Director of Research, Dr Brian Dickie said: “The Lady Edith Wolfson Clinical Research Fellowships are playing a crucial role in creating a new generation of international leaders in MND research. Following on from his initial training fellowship, Dr Fratta is paving the way in helping us understand the role of RNA dysregulation in MND, which may give rise to new approaches to treatment.”