MND Research in 2012

Word cloud from our 2012 blog posts. Created from
Word cloud from our 2012 blog posts. Created from

At this time of year, it’s always good to look back on the previous year to see just how far we’ve really come. We’re pleased to say that 2012 was full of progress being made in the world of MND research and we hope that the speed and number of exciting findings being announced continues at this pace in 2013.

In 2012, 1,466 scientific papers were published in MND, which is 200 more than the previous year, demonstrating the energy and speed at which progress is being made.

Twitter: If you follow us on Twitter, then we’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your re-tweets and mentions throughout 2012 to help raise awareness of MND and to keep your friends and family up-to-date with our exciting news. We managed to double our followers in 2012 because of your continued support!

News stories:

We wrote over 30 blog articles in 2012 to take you behind the scenes of MND research. These were viewed over 36,000 times with visitors coming from 126 countries. Here’s an over of a few of the findings we wrote about in 2012:

Clinical trials

At the start of the year, we heard some exciting news that a drug called Cogane produced some encouraging results in an MND Association funded study. A few weeks ago we heard an update that the drug company who owns Cogane called Phytopharm are moving toward a clinical trial and are currently securing funding and support for this. This could  take a number of months before final plans are made but it’s positive to see that MND Association funding has led to this exciting development!

It was also positive to hear some encouraging NP001 clinical trial results for MND, which is leading toward a larger Phase III study to test the effectiveness of this drug in MND in America this year.

Angiogenin findings advance our understanding of MND

In June, we heard that Irish Angiogenin research lead to promising results. One finding was related to a new biological finding of the vital role that angiogenin plays and the second expands on this work and led to the testing of angiogenin in mice that model MND. Later on in the year, we also heard how University of Bath research showed how angiogenin affects motor neurone survival.

New genes

We also heard about some exciting findings in understanding how genes can influence survival and cause MND for some people. In July, Profilin1 was identified as a cause of MND. In our blog, we explained that Profilin 1 has a role in holding the shape of the cell through the cells scaffolding – called the cytoskeleton. We then heard about another gene called EPHA4 which influences survival in MND.

EPHA4 also plays a role in the cytoskeleton which means that researchers can explore this pathway in more detail as it, in conjunction with the Profilin 1 finding, suggests that this guidance/growth system of motor neurones may play an important role in the development of MND.

Advancing our understanding of C9ORF72

Since the discovery that a repeat expansion in the C9ORF72 can cause MND in 2011, researchers have been working to understand more about it. We announced that we would be funding a new Fellowship which aims to explore how C9ORF72 causes MND using our DNA bank samples. Very late in 2012, we also heard that MND Association funded researchers had identified the structure of C9ORF72 repeat, which looks (with some artistic license granted) surprisingly like a Battenberg cake! It will be interesting to see this field of research continue to yield exciting developments over 2013 and beyond.

TDP-43 research in yeast

TDP-43 was identified as a cause of inherited MND for approximately 4-5% of people with a positive family history of the disease in 2008. Since then, researchers have been working to identify how this gene can cause MND and how this system could be targetted to develop a new treatment for MND. In November, we wrote about a study which marked the first steps in the identification of a treatment that can target TDP-43, which is found to clump together in over 90% of cases of MND. Using a novel yeast model, the research group identified that they could reduce the toxic effect of TDP-43 as a potential therapy for MND.

As this is the beginning of the story of TDP-43 specific treatments for MND, it will inevitably be a long journey to answer these questions and to bring treatments to the doctor’s prescription pad. However, it is positive that this research is moving forward and that we are moving in the right direction.

Symposium 2012

One of the highlights from our year is always our International Symposium on ALS/MND. It’s an accumulation of over a year’s worth of work for our Research Development Team and is a fantastic platform that really demonstrates how far research has come in a year.

For our 2012 International Symposium on ALS/MND, we received 419 high quality overviews of research (called abstracts) from across the globe, totaling 172,581 words!

Over 900 researchers, clinicians and healthcare professionals from 30 countries attended our sympsoium in Chicago USA in 2012 to hear 86 platform presentations and to see over 300 poster presentations.

To keep you up to date with news from the symposium, delegates used the Twitter hashtag #alssymp. In total, 950 tweets were sent using this hashtag!

We also blogged live from the symposium to bring you news as it broke, we summarised these findings in our Symposium highlights 2012. There’s still time to share your thoughts about our symposium blogging to assist us with plans for 2013! To take part, please visit  We will be closing this survey on 31 January.

Thank you!

For following news from the ever changing world of MND research on the MND Association’ research blog, we would like to thank you! We hope you enjoy reading our blog posts in 2013 and help us to raise awareness of MND and the pace of research by sharing our news stories with your friends and family!

Of yeast and men: reducing toxic effects of TDP-43 as a potential treatment for MND

A collaborative American research group, led by Prof Aaron Gitler from Stanford University School of Medicine in California, has identified a potential therapeutic target for MND using yeast.

The toxic activity of the MND-linked protein TDP-43 was suppressed when a gene called DBR1 was deleted from yeast and mammal cells.

The study marks the first steps in the identification of a treatment that can target TDP-43, which is found to clump together in over 90% of cases of MND.

The study was published in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.

Toxic tangle of TDP-43

To develop effective treatments for MND, we need to find ways of targeting the systems that go wrong to cause the disease.

One hallmark of MND is the accumulation of tangled lumps of protein – including TDP-43.

For years, researchers didn’t know whether the clumps of TDP-43 they could see was a by-product of MND, or a cause of the disease. That was of course, until researchers identified that mistakes in the TDP-43 gene can cause inherited MND in 2008. Since then, researchers have been busy creating new disease models to learn more about how TDP-43 can cause MND.

So far, at least 400 studies have been published to better understand TDP-43 in MND (search terms ALS, FTD, variations of TDP-43 on Pubmed).

Yet we still don’t know whether TDP-43 is doing harm by being over active or under active. We do however know that it’s found in the ‘factory floor’ of the cell, called the cytoplasm, when it’s normally found in the control centre. Using this information, it’s possible to focus on therapies that decrease the toxic effect of TDP-43 rather than to increase or decrease the amount of TDP-43.

This is exactly what a collaborative American research group, led by Prof Aaron Gitler has done.

Using yeast, Prof Gitler and colleagues performed two unbiased genetic screens in different laboratories using different techniques. By doing this, they verified a list of genes that can modify the effects of TDP-43 when deleted – by either enhancing the toxic effect or suppressing it.

Out of the list of resulting modifiers, the research group chose to investigate a suppressor of TDP-43 toxicity, a gene called DBR1.


Far from a classic Aston Martin sports racing car (also named DBR1), DBR1 in biological terms is an ‘RNA lariat de-branching enzyme’. It plays an important role in recycling genetic ‘junk’.

Our genes are split into segments within our genetic code, separated by what’s often referred to as ‘junk’ DNA. These sections of junk, known as introns, don’t code for anything, but often perform other important roles.

When a gene is copied into its intermediate form of RNA (before these instructions are used to create a functional protein), it needs to be edited to remove the introns, leaving the vital instructions intact. This involves the introns forming loops of RNA – called lariats – which cut away from the rest of the copy. This leaves only the instructions for the gene product. These lariats then move away from the control centre of the cell (the nucleus) to be recycled.

DBR1’s role normally cuts these lariats open into strings, which can then be recycled. When in a lariat form, RNA is resilient to being recycled. DBR1 therefore plays an important role in recycling intronic RNA in the cell.

What happens when DBR1 is deleted?

When the research group deleted DBR1, intronic lariats accumulated in the factory floor of the cell (the cytoplasm). These lariats then competed to bind to TDP-43, acting as a decoy. This stopped TDP-43 from performing its dastardly deeds when faulty – chopping up essential RNAs within the cell –which could be contributing to the cause of MND.

By deleting DBR1 in yeast and in rat neurones grown in a dish, the research group identified that it increased the chance of neurone survival by nearly 20%.

This means that identifying a therapy that can decrease the amount of DBR1 could be a potential treatment for MND.


Prof Gitler and colleagues independently verified their results from the genetic screen in yeast using different laboratories and different methods.

This is significant in terms of its reliability, as this often has huge repercussions for future research.

This topic was recently discussed in the popular science magazine New Scientist in an article called ‘Is medical science built on shaky foundations?’ In the article, the writer explains that a number of pharmaceutical companies have recently announced their failure to replicate a large number of promising results of potential drug targets from published studies.

It’s vital that if we are to identify a treatment for MND that works, that the evidence that led it to be tested in humans is solid. Gaining evidence to suggest the effectiveness of a treatment means replicating the results using independent researchers and using different methods to put an idea through its paces. This ensures that the original results aren’t identified as a coincidence and can be relied upon.

The decision by Prof Aaron Gitler’s group to reproduce their genetic screen independently, using different methods should be applauded. It means their findings are unlikely to be added to the heap of potential targets that cannot be reproduced in other studies.

Being thorough to identify potential targets may take more time, but it’s likely to produce more fruitful results in the long haul.

Looking forward

There are many steps left to climb with the development of a treatment that targets TDP-43. For example, the research group will need to determine whether stopping DBR1 could itself be toxic due to side effects. They also need to determine where the ‘therapeutic window’ is with this therapy – where it’s both effective and safe.

This study also identified many other modifying factors for TDP-43, which can begin to be investigated by other research groups for their potential as a therapy for MND.

As this is the beginning of the story of TDP-43 specific treatments for MND, it will inevitably be a long journey to answer these questions and to bring treatments to the doctor’s prescription pad.

Hopefully, the beacon of rigor and scientific righteousness that this study symbolises will continue and we will see the first TDP-43 therapy being developed for MND in the coming years.


Maria Armakola et al Inhibition of RNA lariat debranching enzyme suppresses TDP-43 toxicity in ALS disease models. Nature Genetics 2012; doi:10.1038/ng.2434