Last week saw the culmination of 12-months of planning as the 30th International Symposium on ALS/MND took place in Perth, Australia. The Symposium brings together the brightest minds from the MND research and healthcare communities. With 100 oral presentations, and over 420 posters, the Symposium is an opportunity for around 1,000 researchers and healthcare professionals to share new understanding of the disease, and is the premier event in the MND research calendar for discussion on the latest advances in research and clinical management.
Before the Symposium, the Research Information team invited two early career researchers, who both presented a poster at this year’s event, into our offices to talk about their work and why the Symposium is important to them.
We thought we would share this with you, and this is the second of two blog articles highlighting MND researchers of the future – introducing Andrew Tosolini.
Andrew was born in Sydney, Australia and having obtained his PhD (which looked at ways to optimise delivery of therapeutic genes from the muscle to the spinal cord motor neurons) from the University of South Wales, he moved to London a few years ago with his wife to take up his postdoc position at University College London.
Andrew become passionate about MND research whilst helping to care for his father, who fought his own battle with the disease for seven years, and who died on the evening of Andrew’s wedding, surrounded by family and friends.
Andrew is now approaching the final year of his postdoc appointment and is hoping to obtain funding to continue his research into ALS/MND. Here he talks about his project that focuses on axonal transport – the process by which proteins and other important cellular substances are transported from the cell body to the nerve endings, and vice versa. Maintaining efficient and effective axonal transport is particularly important in motor neurons where the axon can be up to one metre in length. You can think of this in terms of transporting goods to and from major cities, and the problems that may arise when this transport breaks down.
About Andrew’s research
A class of motor neurons called fast motor neurons, which are responsible for fast, precise movements such as when we move our hands, are the most vulnerable in MND and are the first sites to degenerate. Andrew has found that this class of vulnerable motor neurons have axonal transport deficits. By comparison, the slow motor neurons, which are involved in maintaining postural control and are more resistant to MND, show no alteration in axonal transport in disease. Fast motor neurons also lose their ability to respond to pro-survival growth factors – naturally occurring signalling molecules that maintain the health of the motor neuron – and this is not impacted in slow motor neurons.
To understand more about these processes, Andrew is trying to determine the precise mechanism behind the vulnerability of the fast motor neuron, focusing on the connection site between the motor neuron and the muscle, called the neuromuscular junction (NMJ), with particular interest in the receptors that are involved in the defective growth factor signalling pathway. By comparing the profile between the fast and slow motor neurons, Andrew aims to reveal novel clues regarding motor neuron vulnerability.
How will this help people with MND in the future?
Because Andrew’s work focuses on the basic biology of MND, it will help us to understand more about what causes the disease. Without this knowledge we cannot develop effective therapies. By understanding how defects in motor neuron signalling from the muscle influences the health of motor neurons, Andrew can then try to develop ways to restore the signalling with the overall aim of preserving the communication between the motor neuron and muscle.
The importance of the Symposium
I asked Andrew how presenting his work in Perth might help with his research. He said, “One of the fantastic things about attending and presenting at the Symposium is that we can share ideas and discuss ways for our projects to move forward. Collaboration is a huge part of scientific progression as we all have our own expertise and niches, and we often rely on other researchers’ expertise to see our project advancement from a new perspective. It is also a way to meet new people from all around the world and to keep in touch with existing contacts. I am particularly looking forward to catching up with the Australian community of MND researchers.”
Hope for the future
When asked how hopeful he was about finding a new treatment, or even a cure, for MND Andrew said. “All researchers focusing on MND are incredibly hopeful of finding a new and effective treatment for MND. It is our job to understand the biology of MND, and the pathological mechanisms that change throughout the course of the disease. As a scientific community, we work collaboratively to find a way forward. I know first-hand how desperate patients and their families are to find a cure and feel very honoured that I can play a role in this. This will never be lost on me and I, along with many others in the MND research community, work tirelessly in the pursuit of developing effective treatments.”
We would like to thank Andrew for taking the time to come to the Association to talk about his work and for providing the content for this blog article. We wish him every success in the future.