Symposium Preview: Meet the ALS/MND Plenary Speakers…Part 1

Symposium Preview: Meet the ALS/MND Plenary Speakers…Part 1

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As the research team count down to this year’s International Symposium on ALS/MND, we will be posting blogs throughout November to give you a snapshot of some of the research being presented at this year’s event. This year marks the 34th Symposium, the largest scientific and medical conference specific to ALS/MND, and we are looking forward to hosting this global event which gives the MND research community the chance to share their work, exchange knowledge and foster new collaborations.

This year, the Symposium is being held in Basel, Switzerland from the 6th– 8th December and there is also an online option for attendance. The online attendance will allow delegates to watch some sessions live, with on demand access for all sessions available after the event (on demand access will also be available to those who attend in-person). We hope this online option will allow more people to participate in the event without having to travel. Last year the symposium was attended by over 1200 delegates from 44 different countries, including researchers, healthcare professionals and people from the wider MND community. We hope to see lots of you there and there is still time to register if you haven’t already!

Each year we invite plenary speakers who are experts in their fields to provide an overview on topics across MND research and clinical practice. This year we have 14 plenary speakers talking about ALS/MND who will cover a wide range of topics from genetics to tissue biomarkers to improving clinical practice. Over this blog and the next one we will be taking a closer look at each of our ALS/MND plenary speakers this year and sharing more about the topics they will be discussing.

Day 1, Session 1: Opening Session

The International Symposium on ALS/MND begins with the Stephen Hawking Memorial Lecture. The Stephen Hawking Memorial Lecture is an important part of the Symposium, as it enables an influential researcher who is outside the immediate MND field to discuss their cutting-edge research, which could be relevant for those working on MND. The aim of this is to get MND researchers to think outside the box and collaborate with others, which will hopefully help to generate new ideas for MND research.

This year’s Stephen Hawking Memorial Lecture will be given by Dr Rui Costa, President & CEO of The Allen Institute. Dr Costa specialises in bioscience and is an expert in the brain circuitry that underlies both spontaneous and refined movements. He and his team are looking to understand more about the mechanisms behind these types of movements which might reveal potential new ways of treating movement diseases.

In this opening talk ‘Mapping the CNS: from Cells to Networks for Movement’, Dr Costa will discuss how The Allen Institute is working towards mapping the connections of the human brain and understand more about the specific circuits that are involved in controlling certain movements. He will share some of the findings of this work so far, such as how different neurons have been found to connect to different cells in the brain and spinal cord. It is hugely important to fully understand the networks and circuits within the brain that control movement as this will help to increase knowledge of how this process is disrupted in diseases that affect movement, including MND.

Day 1, Session 2A: Genetics and genomics

It has long been established that mutations within some genes are associated with the development of MND. The identification of new gene changes involved in the onset and progression of MND is ever increasing and currently over 50 genes have been found to play a role in the disease. These gene mutations can be present in people with both familial and sporadic MND. While research into the genetics of MND has advanced in the last decade, there is still a long way to go to fully understand all of the gene changes involved and the effects that these have on the damage and death of neurons.

Professor John Quinn, from the University of Liverpool, will talk about the importance of non-coding DNA in disease risk and progression of MND in his presentation ‘Exploring the non-coding genome’. Non-coding DNA is genetic material that is not used to make proteins but is involved in regulating the activity of other genes that are used to make proteins. He will discuss how changes in non-coding DNA could play a role in MND by altering the activity of other genes that make essential proteins for the normal function of our cells.

Day 1, Session 3A: In vivo models

Researchers use a variety of different models in the laboratory to study MND and understand what is happening within neurons throughout the disease. An example of one of these models is a mouse model. This is where a mouse is given a gene mutation that is associated with MND so that the biology of the disease is reflected in the mouse cells and can be studied.

Dr Cathleen Lutz, from the Jackson Laboratory, will talk about how mouse models can be used in MND to test new potential therapies and help us to understand more about the mechanisms behind the disease. Her talk ‘Mouse models and resources for ALS – what models to use, when and why’ will review some of the most commonly used mouse models to study MND and discuss the advantages and limitations of using them in translational research (bringing research from the lab to the clinic). She will also discuss some of the other models available which provide an alternative to mouse models, such as stem cell models.

Day 1, Session 3B: Technology and Medicine

Technology can play a huge role in healthcare and the rise of telemedicine means that more people can manage symptoms and receive care at home. Telemedicine involves the use of technology to allow healthcare professionals to monitor an individual’s health and deliver care remotely (for example, video calls and smart watches that monitor movement). Technology can also be used to help improve the quality of life for people with MND and enable them to still communicate with those around them. Over 4 years ago, the MND Association and Rolls Royce launched the NextGen Think Tank which is a collaboration between some of the world’s biggest technology companies. The Think Tank aims to create new groundbreaking technologies to improve the quality of life for people with MND.

Stuart Moss, from Rolls Royce, will talk about ‘Harnessing collaborative innovation to enhance quality of life in ALS/MND’. He will discuss the work of the NextGen Think Tank and how they are working towards improving living with MND for the next generation of people that are diagnosed through the development of new technology.

Day 1, Session 4B: Caregivers and families

People with MND need support and care throughout the course of their disease and often family members and loved ones are the main carers and are involved heavily in day-to-day care. Research has been conducted into how caring for someone with the disease can impact the lives of the carers, how they help make decisions about care for the person with MND and how they can best be supported throughout the disease process.

Dr Miriam Galvin, Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin, is giving a talk on ‘Informal caregiving in ALS – difficulty and benefit’ to share research into caregiver experiences in ALS. She will discuss multiple factors that may influence a person’s ability to become an informal caregiver (commonly a family member who provides unpaid care and assistance to someone) and discuss how caregiving experiences can vary based on factors such as gender, age and culture.

Day 2, Session 5A: Proteostasis and proteotoxicity

Several different proteins have been found to become faulty in MND and have been linked to the onset and progression of the disease. This includes TDP-43 which forms clumps within the neurons and contributes to cell damage in around 97% of MND cases. In MND, TDP-43 moves out of the nucleus of the cell (control centre) and into the cytoplasm (material that fills the inside of the cell), where it builds up and forms toxic clumps.

In his talk, Professor Masato Hasegawa from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Medical Science, will share how TDP-43 might be linked to the severity of symptoms and disease progression. In his talk, ‘Prion-like properties of ALS associated proteins’ he will also discuss the theory that abnormal TDP-43 can convert normal TDP-43 into the abnormal form and that this may spread between neurons. Professor Hasegawa will talk about his latest research where he and his team discovered the structure of the faulty TDP-43 in MND and this could be very useful in the development of potential therapies that target the formation of TDP-43 clumps in the disease.

Day 2, Session 7A: Immunity, inflammation and neurodegeneration / non-neuronal contributors to ALS

There is increasing evidence that suggests that neurons may not be the only cells to undergo changes in MND. Another type of brain cell called an astrocyte helps to support neurons by forming connections with the neurons around it and providing the perfect environment for the neurons to function at their best. Previous research has found that astrocyte behaviour may change in neurodegenerative diseases like MND and this might contribute to progression of the disease.

In her talk ‘Astrocyte-neuron interaction in health and disease’, Professor Laura Ferrariuolo, from the University of Sheffield, will discuss the role that astrocyte cells may play in the development and progression of MND. She will also share how understanding more about the behaviour of astrocytes in the disease could lead to the identification of new targets for therapies and provide a way to subgroup people with MND based on these cell changes.

If you’ve enjoyed this preview of some of the talks being given by our Plenary Speakers, keep an eye out next week for our blog highlighting more of the talks being given at the symposium.

We hope you’ll be joining us at this year’s Symposium either in Basel or online and there’s still time to register if you haven’t already! You can register to attend using the button near the top of the blog.

Stay informed

You can find out more about the International Symposium on ALS/MND on the website and view the full programme for this year’s event.

You can follow our research account on Twitter. We tweet about up to the minute research and will be tweeting throughout the Symposium using the hashtag #alsmndsymp.

I work in the Research Development team at the MND Association as a Research Co-ordinator. I completed my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science and I became very interested in neuroscience throughout my degree. Following on from this, I did a Master’s degree in Molecular Medicine, with a focus on gene therapies. As part of my role, I will be helping the Research Development team to identify interesting updates in MND research and communicate these via the blog in an understandable and engaging way.