Each year, the 21st of June marks Global MND Awareness Day and MND Charites and Associations across the world acknowledge the impact that MND has on everyone who is affected by the disease. This year, we would like to recognise the dedication and commitment of the MND community who give their time and knowledge to contribute to the collaborative effort to find new treatments.
Over the last three years, people with MND, researchers, neurologists and MND charities have come together to campaign for more Government investment into research that specifically focuses on MND. In November 2021, the Government agreed to invest £50 million into targeted MND research over five years.
While we are still waiting on this Government investment, the United to End MND campaign has inspired the development of a new initiative, which aims to address some of the current problems with getting potential therapies from the laboratory into the clinic (also known as translational research). This collective partnership, between charities (MND Association, LifeArc, MND Scotland, and My Name’5 Doddie Foundation) and government funders (Medical Research Council and National Institute of Health Research), will accelerate the development of treatments for MND. The organisations involved in the partnership have each committed funds to a total of £4.25 million which will support one collaborative project and act as a springboard for future large-scale projects in MND research. The project will help to bring the research community together to discover new ways in which treatments can be found and tested, as well as encourage more research centres to get involved in the fight against MND. The recipients of this funding were announced today.
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This 3-year project, led by Professor Ammar Al-Chalabi from King’s College London (right) and Professor Chris McDermott from the University of Sheffield (left), aims to resolve two problems which are currently slowing progress in developing effective treatments for MND.
The first problem that is slowing the development of treatments is that MND affects everyone differently. This means that currently it is hard to measure disease progression and whether a potential treatment is truly effective.
The project aims to overcome this problem by improving ways that we can measure disease progression and treatment response in the laboratory. Part of this involves taking samples from 1000 people with MND, both at clinic visits and at home, and using these to identify and develop biomarkers of MND that could provide a more reliable measure of disease progression and activity.
It will also build on current research infrastructure, such as the MND register and an existing telehealth platform called Telehealth in MND or TiM. TiM is an app which is used to help improve communication between people with MND, their carers and healthcare professionals in the clinics. It uses questionnaires to gather information on areas such as weight, appetite and functional abilities to help care teams make sure that people are getting the care they need. The app is to be developed further to incorporate some research features so that people with MND can take part in research from their homes. The development of the TiM app and linking to the MND Register will be useful in collecting further data on symptoms, location, life-style factors, disease progression and quality of life. This data will be used to improve the accuracy of the ALSFRS-R, which is a widely used questionnaire to assess progression, and make it more useful in future clinical research.
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The second issue is that we cannot take biopsies (tissue samples) from those with MND like we can in other diseases, and this makes testing new treatments on diseased cells very difficult.
This problem area will be addressed by using cells from people with MND to enable better testing of new treatments. Using blood cells from those with MND, the researchers will create stem cells which are specially designed to behave in the same way as cells in someone with the disease. These stem cells can then be used to generate motor neurons and other types of brain cells that are important in maintaining the health of motor neurons. This part of the project will bring research centres in the UK together to form a network, which will allow a larger number of potential treatments to be tested in several types of cells. As each centre will be using the same cells in the same way, it means that promising therapies discovered in one centre can be rapidly shared and confirmed by another centre so that the most promising drug candidates can be progressed to clinical trials.
How will this be achieved?
The MND Collaborative project involves the work of researchers from King’s College London, University of Sheffield, University of Liverpool, University College London, University of Oxford and University of Edinburgh. It is split into five separate sub-projects and these smaller projects each focus on a specific area. You can read more about these below.
This project will not only help to combat two of the main barriers surrounding the drug discovery process, but also builds a foundation for a UK MND research community. Currently the process for therapy development and testing is happening bit by bit with teams working on their own or in small collaborations. It is hoped that, by research centres in the UK working together, this process can be transformed and lead to an approach where the search for new treatments is a coordinated effort. The project will bring together researchers, people with MND, charities and industry partners to accelerate drug discovery and testing with the aim of making MND a treatable disease within years rather than decades.
We would like to thank our supporters for their commitment to the work of the Association, which enables us to continue to fund MND research and invest in new projects such as this one.