Lighting the way from MND research to the COVID-19 response

Lighting the way from MND research to the COVID-19 response

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Guest researcher blog post: My name is Sophie Nyberg and I am a neuroscientist currently working in the Lighthouse COVID-19 testing labs in Alderley Park, Cheshire, England.

Sophie Nyberg
Sophie Nyberg at Lighthouse lab, Alderley Park.

Back in April 2018, I commenced my postdoctoral research position at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), on a project led by Dr Laura Ferraiuolo and Prof Dame Pamela Shaw and funded by the MND Association. I was investigating the role of micro RNA (miRNA) – small pieces of the cell’s genetic code that regulate expression of instructions in our DNA – and how they could be used in possible new treatments for MND.

We know from many recent studies that stem cell transplants (grafts) show promising results in clinical trials, but it is unclear why they are beneficial. At SITraN, I was looking at whether stem cells could be rescuing motor neurons from dying by carrying miRNA in microscopic cargo carriers called extracellular vesicles, which are released by cells to communicate with other cells. If this hypothesis proved correct, we could potentially separate the carriers containing the miRNA from the stem cells and inject them directly, meaning surgery to implant stem cells would no longer be required. We did indeed find evidence supporting that extracellular vesicles from stem cells stopped motor neurons from dying in cell models in the lab. However, further investigations are required to get a complete overview of the content of these vesicles before they could possibly be used as a treatment.

In April this year, I started a new role with Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC), a facility connecting the UK community to accelerate innovative drug discovery. As a result of the current pandemic, the MDC has been coordinating effort with industry and academia to advance the capacity of COVID-19 testing across the UK.

With my experience of working in scientific labs, I was immediately able to join the team to help with COVID-19 testing when the Lighthouse labs were still being set up at a staggering speed. I have seen the process scaled up from 1,000 samples a day to 20,000 which in itself is a huge accomplishment. Through this time, I have been a floor lead, overseeing many of the individual workstations in which samples are processed to detect whether RNA (molecules that carries the genetic instructions from DNA to form proteins) from the COVID-19 virus is present in samples from patients. We use a technique called PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to rapidly amplify a very small sample of RNA to a large enough amount to then study in detail.

Sophie Nyberg_PCR
Setting up the PCR machines for SARS-CoV-2 detection in Lighthouse Alderley Park.

It has been great to be involved in Lighthouse, not least because of the rapid pace of samples having to be processed accurately and swiftly to report results back within 24 hours. This is different from typical scientific research, which occurs over years rather than hours. However, the PCR test is a simple diagnostics test that essentially answers a yes/no question of “is the virus present?”. Research questions are far more complex, requiring thorough investigation in cell and animal models. A case of evidence that a new treatment is safe and acts in the way we think it acts needs to be built up before it can be approved for testing in the clinic.

Some aspects have been the same as in research, with emphasis on refining methodologies and problem solving. In Lighthouse, I have also had the opportunity to take on new roles, such as managing several labs at the same time – including all the people working in them! I had never seen such a large lab team effort in my career, with hundreds of people working together on a given day, yet there has been seamless teamwork and coordination between all workstations.

Now that life is returning to normal, I am going back to my regular duties at MDC to develop ‘complex cell models’. Most current cell models are grown on flat surfaces and are not exposed to any circulating fluid, which often does not provide the full picture when investigating disease mechanisms and drug responses. With advances in technology it is possible to create more complex models – often so-called organ-on-a-chip models – which incorporate aspects such as the flow of the cell culture media, a mix of nutrients in liquid that cells need to survive and grow, and also enables growing cells in ‘tubes’ resembling the inside of a blood vessel.

Sophie Nyberg_organ-on-a-chip
Organ-on-a-chip. Source and further reading:

My focus will be on developing an organ-on-chip model of the blood-brain-barrier, a barrier that evolved to protect the brain and spinal cord from harmful components in the blood, but unfortunately also keeps out the majority of therapeutic drugs. I will also be using my experience gained in MND research to help set up neuroinflammation models, which for instance can be used to develop drugs that reduce the inflammation that is known to influence motor neuron damage in MND. Having more organ-on-chip models will significantly help with the development of new treatments in neuroscience and will also help to increase our understanding of disease.

Overall, I have had a fantastic experience working in the Lighthouse labs and I am proud to have been a part of this community and its large-scale response to the pandemic. At the same time, I look forward to returning to researching ways to enable drug delivery to the brain and spinal cord, wherein my passion lies.

We’d like to thank Sophie for taking the time to share her interesting journey with us. We hope you enjoyed reading about how she has used her experiences in research to work in Lighthouse labs during the COVID-19 pandemic and will now continue her role at MDC to develop complex cell models to investigate treatments for neurological diseases such as MND.

Watch Sophie’s Lighthouse Lab Story through the UK Lighthouse Lab Network.

The MND Association’s vision is a world free from MND. Realising this vision means investing more in research, further developing partnerships with the research community, funding bodies and industry, while ensuring that advances in understanding and treating MND are communicated as quickly and effectively as possible. Our Research Development team, composed of 11 members, work hard to achieve this. Principally, the Research Information team within this are involved in communication activities including this MND Research blog.