Life of an MND researcher – part 2: PhD edition

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Each year, the MND Association dedicates the month of June to raising MND awareness. This year, we focus on the eyes – in most people with MND the only part of their body they can still move and the only way left for them to communicate. Alongside the Association-wide campaign, the Research Development team selected six most-enquired about topics, which we will address through six dedicated blogs.

In our previous article we introduced four MND researchers who gave us an insight what a typical day in the life of a researcher looks like and what carrying out a research study actually involves. In this continuation article, you will get the chance to look into the lives of four PhD students, who give us an overview of their projects and their usual daily duties.

Ambra Annibali is a PhD student at King’s College London.

MNDA, Research at King’s College London Picture by Vicky Matthers iconphotomedia

“I work on the C9ORF72 protein, which has been linked with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). While we know that people with MND carry a mutated form of this protein, we still don’t know what the ‘normal function’ of this protein is. Knowing what function is missing in the cells of people with MND can help us to develop therapies to restore that lost function.

I am currently double-checking our hypothesis about some possible functions of the protein. Specifically, I am ‘knocking-down’ (ie reducing the amount of) C9ORF72 in healthy cells and seeing how this affects the cells’ mechanism. In order to knock-down the C9ORF72 protein, we use ‘small interfering RNA’ (siRNA), a tiny piece of RNA (a molecule similar to the DNA), which is able to target a specific gene and inhibit its translation into a protein.

A part of my job is to grow healthy human cells in ‘microtiter plates’ (pictured below). These have round glass coverslips on the bottom, to which the cells attach as they grow. Today I have treated them with siRNA, to silence C9ORF72 production and in the next two days, I will analyse the cells under the microscope.”

Images courtesy of King’s College London

Read more about Ambra’s work on her project ‘The function of C9ORF72 in MND’ supervised by Prof Miller.

 Olly Clabburn is a PhD student at Edge Hill University.

“I began my three-year study at the end of 2014 in which I am investigating the use of digital legacies by people affected by MND. The process of conducting my research has been extremely varied, which ensures that no two days are the same for me. From liaising with potential participants, visiting local MND Association branches to talk about my study, to travelling all over the country to interview participants. I always feel so grateful when participants give up their time to take part in my research and I love that my role gives me the opportunity to meet inspirational people on a regular basis.

Time has flown by and I am now moving into the final months of my research, which means that much of my time is currently focused on analysing interview data and writing various chapters for my thesis. Needless to say, the late nights and my single-handed effort to keep the coffee industry afloat are now becoming worth it as ‘the puzzle pieces’ are beginning to fall in to place for my final thesis!”

Read more about Olly’s project on digital legacy.

Carla Da Silva Santos is a PhD student at University of Oxford.

“I usually start my day reading the news and going through the e-mails in my inbox while drinking my morning coffee. Then, I either plan my next experiment or I go straight to the lab. Lately I have been quantifying molecules that are inside the lysosomes – the recycling system of the cells. So I spend a lot of time isolating and purifying these molecules (that is what I am doing in the picture).

Once I get my results I analyse them, try to understand their meaning according to what we already know and decide what to do next. From time to time I discuss my results with my supervisor to make sure I am progressing well. I like to read in the evenings, to catch up on what other scientist are doing.”

 Read more about Carla’s  work on the project ‘The role of glycospingo-lipids in MND’ supervised by Prof Platt.

Dr Rubika Balendra is a PhD student at UCL.

“I use fruit flies and cells to understand why MND happens and how we could treat it. On a typical day in the lab I study fruit flies, in which I have switched on an MND-causing gene, and I dissect their very small brains under a microscope. I then use a powerful microscope to visualise neurons within their brains and investigate if and why the neurons are abnormal.

In the afternoon I cycle over to the cell lab where I am growing stem cells in a dish. These stem cells were originally made from the skin cells of MND patients and have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. I turn the stem cells into motor neurons and it’s very exciting watching this happen. I then treat these with drugs to try to rescue abnormalities in the MND neurons. We hope this research contributes to developing effective treatments for patients in the future.”

Stem cells have the potential to become any type of cell in the body, and stem cells from patients with MND have been turned into these human motor neurons growing in a dish, shown in the picture.