Celebrating the contribution of Women to MND research

Celebrating the contribution of Women to MND research

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Each year the 11th of February sees the world recognise and celebrate the contributions of women in science. The International day of Women and Girls in science was established by the United Nations to promote gender equality and encourage more women and girls across the world to aim to build a career in science. It is hoped that this day can help to break down barriers that can limit the involvement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

At the MND Association, we wanted to celebrate this day by shining a spotlight on some of the amazing women that we fund. We fund researchers in MND throughout their careers and currently 50% of our non-clinical fellows and around 60% of our PhD students are women. We are proud to be able to support so many talented women to build their careers in MND research by providing them with the opportunity to gain experience and develop skills needed to progress towards becoming an independent researcher.

This year we chatted to three women that we fund, who are all at various stages of their careers, to find out more about their research and what they hope it could lead to for people with MND.

Dr Emily Carroll, Pre-fellow at the University of Oxford

Can you tell us about your research?

As we know, we haven’t got many treatments for motor neuron disease at the moment. Given this we’re trying to rethink the drug discovery process so that we might have more success in identifying new treatments that significantly slow or halt the progression of the disease.

I’m using an approach called drug repurposing to look at drugs that are already approved for the treatment of other conditions and seeing whether they might be effective in the treatment of MND. In my work I use laboratory cell models that have a genetic defect associated with the development of MND. Possessing this MND-associated genetic defect leads to development of abnormal traits within these cells, that we don’t see in cells without the genetic defect. I’m examining whether treating these cells with existing drugs can reverse or modify these abnormal traits.

We’re hoping that drug repurposing might be able to help ‘fast-track’ drug discovery in MND because these drugs have already undergone extensive safety testing and some of them, but not all of them, are already in use for the treatment of other diseases. This is really important as lack of safety is one of the main barriers facing drug discovery for MND. Whilst you might identify a drug that looks really promising in preclinical research you might then find that it’s not safe to use in humans. We hope that drug repurposing can help to overcome this and prevent drugs failing in clinical trials due to poor safety profiles.

What do you think your research could lead to?

In the first instance, I hope we can identify drugs that are capable of rescuing MND-associated traits in the different model systems that we have in the lab. If we can see that it would be great to take those drugs forward, by looking at whether they also show beneficial effects in mouse models of MND and then eventually investigate them in a clinical trial setting.

What are your hopes for the future of MND research?

I think collaboration is really important. A lot of researchers are working on similar things so it’s important that we can integrate those things to help accelerate MND research. This is one of the main aims of the newly established UK MND Research Institute, which hopes to bring researchers together and foster collaboration.

Dr Rebecca Saleeb, Junior Non-clinical Fellow at the University of Edinburgh

Can you tell us about your research?

My goal is to develop tools that allow us to detect ALS/MND early on using accessible human biofluids. At the moment, I look at cerebrospinal fluid as my sample of choice because it can give direct information from within the brain and spinal cord. I know that for people with ALS that is still more invasive than would be ideal, but hopefully it can be evolved over time to something that might be less invasive, like blood serum. But at least if it can give us an early time point diagnostic, if we could achieve that, then we’re able to start looking at getting people in trials earlier because there’s so many promising new therapeutics coming out for ALS.

I’ve previously developed techniques that I’ve used for Parkinson’s disease where I pull biomarkers out of the biofluids, in the case of Parkinson’s disease this was alpha- synuclein. In the case of ALS, I want to extract TDP 43 or FUS, proteins that aggregate and we know are involved in the development of the disease. I then immobilise these onto glass so that I can analyse them using cutting-edge imaging technologies that can assess not only whether they are there, but also if they are irregular, if they are aggregated and if they have certain morphologies or certain modifications that we can link with ALS. I hope to build on what we know about what’s going on inside the person with ALS to develop new diagnostic approaches.

What is it about research that excites you?

Being at the forefront of research is a dream from when you’re a young scientist. It actually took me a really long time to identify as being a scientist, even when I was a PhD student. I felt I was still in training and not yet a proper scientist. But now working at the forefront, bringing in my own funding and envisioning my own projects, I finally feel like I am a scientist, and that’s super exciting.

I think another thing that excites me is when I solve a puzzle, however little it is, because 90% of the time you’re battling and things just won’t work. You can spend a long time trying to understand the problem, but when it finally comes together and you get that golden result, it’s brilliant and keeps you going.

What it is like to be a woman in science?

I can’t lie, it can be tough being a woman in science. There are barriers that still exist, and I hope, as more women reach the higher levels, they can help break these barriers down for the women that are coming through. The need for women in science is recognised across all levels of research, but I think there’s still progress to be made in supporting women to stay and make it work for them.

Charlotte Gale, PhD Student at the University of Sheffield

Can you tell us about your research?

I’m looking at the mechanism side of motor neuron disease, so I’m using a fruit fly model because, they do have a lot of obvious differences to humans, but they have a lot of similarities as well. A lot of disease genes can be found in fruit flies as well as humans, their cells work the same, a lot of their physiology works the same.

I’m using the fruit flies and the genetic changes we can do to them to look at a particular mutation that’s linked to motor neuron disease. I’m interested in whether that mutation is affecting the cell structure. It seems like in our fruit flies there is a problem in moving bits of the cell that are needed for maintenance from one end of the cell to the other. So when cells get old and they start falling apart, or they need things repairing, if those bits that are needed for that can’t get down the cell, then that might be contributing to the cells dying off.

So that’s the actual specific thing I’m looking at and we’re looking at a number of different ways that we might be able to rescue that effect in the flies. We’re looking at different gene therapies that could be an option or different drugs in particular.

What do you think your research could lead to?

So what I’d love is to be able to find a treatment. It probably wouldn’t be an all-out cure, but some kind of way to manage the progression of the disease. Once I can understand perhaps some of the mechanism of what’s going wrong in this cell transport, then taking that forward to finding what other gene therapies could happen and if we could find a drug that’s possibly good for repurposing for treatment, then that would certainly be promising. That could then be taken forward into tests in other animals or in cells, or even maybe one day into clinical trials.

What is it about your research that excites you?

I think that the thing that keeps me going day to day is that I can see a big difference in the flies when we give them motor neuron disease compared to when they’re healthy. So it’s really interesting when I could suddenly change something and see what makes it worse, what makes it less bad, what seems to maybe rescue it.

Anytime that I have a chance to try something, especially as I’m working now more into the drug treatments, it’s really exciting when I can actually see something that makes them better. And obviously it’s not a person, it’s not even a mammal, but it’s so promising. Where you can just see that little glimmer of light that maybe something will work someday, and maybe it can actually be carried through.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science helps to showcase and celebrate some of the incredible research done by women scientists around the world. It is hoped that this day inspires younger generations to become leaders in the field and brings to light some of the challenges that still exist for women in science so that there can be a focus on how to resolve these and keep more women in science.  

We would like to thank Emily, Rebecca and Charlotte for giving their time to chat to us about their research.

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.