MND is a very complex disease and collaboration within the research community is key to building on our current understanding of the disease biology and finding effective treatments. The MND Association recognises the importance of expanding the dedicated MND research workforce, as well as supporting those who are already working in the field. To fund the most promising research into the disease, we need bright and talented researchers to carry out the work. This is why we provide opportunities, such as PhD studentships and fellowships, which help to attract and train talented scientists who could be the future leaders of MND research. One of the ways we support the development of early career researchers is through our pre-fellowship scheme.
The pre-fellowship scheme was announced earlier this year and is being funded by the MND Association and coordinated by MND Scotland. This scheme is designed to bridge the gap between finishing a PhD and applying for a fellowship. Researchers applying for fellowships, such as our Lady Edith Wolfson Fellowships, need data to support their application and show the potential of their work. These fellowships are the next step for researchers wanting to progress to a fully independent research career. The pre-fellowships offer 12-18 months of funding to enable scientists to obtain this data and provide an essential stepping stone to continue a career in MND research and become a future leader in the field.
Three pre-fellowships have recently been awarded at different institutions and these cover a range of research areas. Keep reading to find out more about the new pre-fellowship projects.
Investigating ‘old’ drugs as ‘new’ treatments in MND
Dr Emily Carroll at the University of Oxford will be looking into drugs that are already used for other conditions (known as drug repurposing) to see whether they could be beneficial for people with MND. This pre-fellowship will use an established mouse model of MND to further test 6 pre-identified compounds that have shown promise in correcting some abnormalities seen in neurons in MND. She aims to understand more about how these drugs may work and test them again in cell models and zebrafish models of MND to determine if the same results are seen in different models. These potential treatments of MND will be tested on their own and in combination to assess whether they might be better on their own or when given together. It is hoped that the most promising of these drugs can be further developed and taken into EXPERTS-ALS, a new drug testing platform, to test them in people with MND.
There is currently no cure for MND, and new treatments are desperately needed. The traditional drug discovery process is time consuming, expensive and carries a high risk of failure. My research involves looking at existing drugs, which are currently used to treat other conditions, and seeing whether they can be effective in the treatment of MND. We hope that by examining existing drugs, instead of developing new ones from scratch, we will be able to ‘fast-track’ the drug discovery process for MND.Dr Emily Carroll, University of Oxford
Blog | 21 June 2023 | Eleanor Green
EXPERTS-ALS: a new drug testing platform from the UK MND Research Institute
Confirming possible subgroups of MND based on biological characteristics
Previous research has suggested that people with MND could be grouped based on shared biology and that this may help to better predict someone’s disease progression and allow clinical trials to test whether a possible treatment is effective in a particular group of people with the disease. This pre-fellowship at King’s College London will gather more evidence to confirm three subgroups that have already been identified by the team using a machine learning method (computer software that analyses large amounts of data). These subgroups are based on different patterns of gene activity in MND. The pre-fellow, who is yet to be named, will further test these subgroups to confirm if they are accurate and establish whether these subgroups are also useful for MND before symptoms appear (pre-symptomatic). To test this method, the researcher will use genetic and health information from people with MND (before and after they developed symptoms) and healthy controls from a large database and research resource, called The UK Biobank. The pre-fellow will also use blood samples collected from the MIROCALS clinical trial to determine whether subgrouping can help to explain individual responses to the potential treatment IL-2. Being able to identify accurate subgroups of MND might help to explain why people with MND experience different symptoms and have varying rates of disease progression. This project could lead to the discovery of new potential drug targets as it could help us understand more about the changes happening in gene activity during the disease for some people and how these might be corrected. This could also lead to a more personalised treatment approach for MND in the future by targeting the particular gene changes that are seen in each subgroup.
Using a model to understand more about failing signals between neurons and muscles in MND
Dr Alannah Mole at the University of Sheffield aims to uncover more about the events that lead to failed communication in MND. She will use neurons and muscles from mouse models of MND to observe the interactions between the cells at various time points throughout the disease. This will help to map the sequence of events that lead to the failure of the signalling in MND and the time at which each event happens. These observations will be combined with measures of movement in the mice to provide a bigger picture of the disease process and the effects that these events have on mobility. The pre-fellowship will also test compounds that target some of the events that lead to failed signalling to determine whether any of them can delay or prevent the loss of connections between neurons and muscles in MND. It could provide key insights into tailoring potential treatments to exactly what is going wrong at that point in time, which could mean that different treatments are more effective during different stages of the disease.
I aim to map changes in nerve cell function and activity across the disease time course in models of MND at the smallest and most complex biological level. This is particularly important in the clinic, as if we know where and when things go wrong, then we can target these events more effectively and know what therapeutic approaches might work at different disease stages to delay or prevent the loss of nerve connections.Dr Alannah Mole, University of Sheffield
As well as providing funding for the pre-fellows to gather the data needed to apply for fellowships, the scheme will also enable the pre-fellows to receive mentoring from research experts in MND. This new scheme forms part of the aims of the UK MND Research Institute to train future leaders in the MND field. It will help to increase collaboration between research centres involved in the institute.
Part of the pre-fellowship scheme involves connecting the researchers with people with MND. It is hoped that this will help the pre-fellows to understand more about the disease from the perspective of those who are affected, as well as giving people with MND the opportunity to understand more about the work of the pre-fellow. This relationship could help the pre-fellow to improve their communication skills by discussing their work with a non-scientist audience rather than just their peers.
The scheme bridges a current gap in research funding and is vital to supporting and encouraging scientists, who are just beginning their careers, to continue working in MND.
Funding schemes such as the MND Association pre-fellowship are really important for early career researchers. Full fellowship applications are competitive and require sufficient pilot data to support your research plan, which takes time to acquire. Given this, funding which bridges the gap between finishing a PhD and applying for a fellowship is key to allow early career researchers time to generate sufficient pilot data for a full fellowship application.Dr Emily Carroll, University of Oxford
This pre-fellowship will provide a unique and exciting opportunity to research some of my own ideas, whilst benefitting from the advice, support, and expertise of established researchers in an amazing environment; such connections will be important in future. This time will also be particularly valuable in allowing me to gather preliminary data in preparation for fellowship application, where I can pursue ideas further and ultimately work towards becoming an independent MND researcher.Dr Alannah Mole, University of Sheffield
We are really pleased to be funding these pre-fellowships to help attract and retain the best and brightest early career researchers in MND. The scheme provides a stepping stone towards an independent research career and supports the training of the next generation of experts in MND research.
We would like to thank Alannah and Emily for taking the time to speak with us about their pre-fellowships.