Standing on the shoulders of… Dorothy Hodgkin

On the way to work last Wednesday, a story on BBC Radio 4 – ‘Today programme’ suddenly grabbed my attention: “February will mark the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote!”

Curiosity sparked, I turned up the radio: “BBC Radio 4 are holding an online vote for the most influential British women of the past century. Each day in the run up to the anniversary we’ll be shortlisting and celebrating a candidate for the award”.

Last Wednesday’s nominee was Dorothy Hodgkin, the only British woman to ever win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Dorothy won her award in 1964 for developing a technique that enables the complex structure of proteins to be deciphered – this is known as protein crystallography. Dorothy used this technique to work out the structure of insulin, vitamin B12 and penicillin.

Funnily enough, I had recently been discussing this technique with my colleague Jessica. I told her the news story when I got to work and we decided we’d share with you how, thanks to Dorothy’s brilliant work, protein crystallography is currently helping researchers funded by the MND Association to find out more about MND.Read More »

Tackling weight loss in MND – from ProGas to PostGas

Swallowing problems are an incredibly common cause of malnutrition and weight loss in MND patients. To add to this, weight loss in MND is associated with shorter survival. This means managing swallowing problems effectively is crucial to ensuring people living with MND can have the best possible quality of life.

Managing swallowing problems using gastrostomy

Swallowing problems in MND are often managed by placing a feeding tube directly into a patient’s stomach – this is known as a gastrostomy. The feeding tube can either be placed into the stomach via the mouth, or directly from outside the body.

An MND Association-funded study that concluded in 2015 provided much needed evidence on the best method and timing for gastrostomy. This study, known as ProGas, was led by Professor Chris McDermott at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN).Read More »

It’s not just about the neurones

Long before the latest wave of cellular and molecular biology advances started to give us new information on what was going on at the cellular level in MND, some doctors had observed that if the disease started in one particular part of the body, it would be neighbouring parts that became affected next.  This suggested that the disease usually starts in a single part of the brain or spinal cord before spreading further, like ripples in a pond.

How this happens is not well understood. It is likely that there are a number of processes going on, but they can broadly be divided into two theories. One of these is that damaged proteins can leak out of sick neurons and ‘infect’ their neighbours – a subject we have discussed at previous international Symposia.Read More »

Catch up on Symposium…focus on causes and treatments

Following on from our previous catch-up blog on clinical management talks presented at the Symposium, here is a continuation that looks at talks focusing on treatment therapies and causes of MND.

RNA Binding & Transport

RNA is the lesser-known ‘cousin’ of DNA – it contains copies of genetic instructions sent out from the nucleus – the ‘control hub’ of every cell. This RNA is carried out of the nucleus by lots of different proteins, including the RNA-binding proteins TDP-43 and FUS, which act as ‘couriers’ dropping off their RNA at the right part of the cell and then returning to the nucleus for the next package.

These binding proteins both play an important role in motor neurone health. In motor neurones affected by MND, the TDP-43 and FUS seem unable to make their way back to the nucleus so they form clumps in other parts of the neurone. How and why this happens is not really understood and several presentations on the first day of the Symposium provided insight into what might be going wrong.  Dr Brian Dickie, Director of Research Development at the MND Association, summarises these presentations in his blog Libraries, Doormen and Harry Potter. You can also hear Brian talk about RNA proteins on the Symposium website.Read More »

Catch up on Symposium…focus on ‘clinical management’

From abstracts to posters, pushpins to ribbons, it takes a whole year to get to this day – no, not Christmas, but the 28th International Symposium on ALS/MND. In this and the following ‘catch-up’ blog we will summarise what went on at the Symposium and where you can find out more information. To begin with, you can read about what goes into organising the biggest meeting of its kind on our blog:  It’s that time of year again … #alssymp.

Because of the diversity of the talks presented at the Symposium, we categorised them into five key themes that follow the timeline ‘from bench to bedside’; biomedical research, diagnosis and prognosis, causes of MND, clinical trials and treatments, and improving wellbeing and quality of life. You can read more about each of these themes on our Symposium LIVE webpages.Read More »

Lessons learnt in the past year…update on clinical trials

Looking for a treatment for MND is the ultimate goal of the whole MND community. Unfortunately, as MND is a very complicated disease, it is not as easy as it may sound. Setting aside the sheer cost of running trials, researchers have to look at all the possible causes of MND (the genes, lifestyle and environment) and then target these with specific compounds and hoping that this strategy won’t be halted by a different biological process. This is made even harder by the large number of possible combinations of these causative factors and the many different ways these can interact.

Thankfully, lots of research groups across the world are doing their best to tackle the adverse disease mechanisms, which is why we heard lots of results of early as well as late stage clinical trials, new strategies to design better treatments in the future, and lessons learnt from previous studies.

While there was much more to hear and read at the Symposium, here we summarise the Clinical trials session (4B), where five presenters reported results and analyses of the treatments they have been investigating.Read More »

‘There is an app for that’ – the wonders of technology in ALS

At the end of a very busy Day 2 of the Symposium, I sat down with my colleagues for a quick chat. After a while, one of them, who has been with the Association since 1995 told us how someone once asked him: ‘So if you look at the last 20 years, how has the world progressed to know more about MND, since there is still no cure to halt it?’. ‘Technology!’, he replied without hesitation. (Alright, he is a tech guy by occupation, so his opinion might be a bit biased, but he still proves the point I am trying to make).

Technology in the world of research has progressed incredibly far. From the ability to sequence the whole genome of a person in a fraction of the time (and price) that we were able to do a decade ago, to using delicate electrodes and sensors to explore what is happening inside our bodies.Read More »

Libraries, Doormen and Harry Potter

I usually travel to London two to three times a month for meetings and lab visits. If I’ve got any length of spare time, I head for what I call my ‘London office’ – aka the British Library. It’s close to Euston station, it’s free (!) it has a nice café for informal meetings and it has copies of all the latest textbooks and major research journals.

The way in which a cell turns its genetic instructions into the protein ‘building blocks’ it needs to function and survive is sometimes compared to a library.Read More »

Understanding disease variability – the 2017 IPG prize winner

Warmest congratulation to Dr Marka van Blitterswijk of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, winner of this year’s Paulo Gontijo Prize in Medicine.

The Award is presented to an outstanding young investigator working on ALS/MND, with judging based on the significance of a recent scientific paper published by each applicant, plus an evaluation of the relevance and impact of their career to date. I have had the pleasure of serving on the Judging Committee, Chaired by Prof Mamede de Carvahlo, since 2011 and each year the competition gets tougher and tougher. It is so heartening to see the increasing number of excellent young scientists dedicating their careers to the fight.Read More »

It’s that time of the year again… #alssymp

It was only one week after the 27th International Symposium on ALS/MND in Dublin had ended when we started the next stage of planning for Boston 2017. Now a year has passed and we are here again, waiting to learn about the exciting research that is happening throughout the world. But before we start talking science to you, I thought I would give you a whistle-stop tour of what it takes to organise the Symposium.

It all starts with a selection of a venue at least three years prior the event. This has to tick a number of boxes, including appropriate number and size of rooms for platform and poster presentations, a place for exhibitors, lunch, ease of access both inside the venue as well as outside with respect to the location from transport facilities and so on. A number of site visits are organised to ensure that we are familiar with the venue so that we can plan the location of the platform sessions, locations for exhibitors, lunch, meetings, and networking. And then the year of the event comes…Read More »