Integrative Approaches to Developing Therapeutics for Neurodegenerative Diseases – The Young Life Scientists’ Symposium 2012

Guest post by Joseph Jebelli (University College London, UK, conference delegate)

Earlier this year, during a TEDMED talk, the legendary Harvard biologist E.O Wilson offered this advice to young scientists: “March away from the sound of the guns. Observe from a distance but do not join the fray… make a fray of your own.” Well, this year’s Young Life Scientists’ Symposium, hosted by the stunning new Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, did exactly that in the ongoing battle to understand and treat neurodegenerative disease.

At most scientific conferences, the fledgling academic pursuing a career in research can easily be forgiven for feeling intimidated, and maybe even somewhat insignificant, when surrounded by the throngs of mature heavy weights in their field. Not anymore. Focusing largely on disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease, a small army of students from research institutes across the UK dominated the atmosphere with their boundless enthusiasm and fresh ideas.

“I think it’s quite refreshing because the input that you get from the younger generation is less biased than what you would get from a person who is very specific to their field… they look at your data a bit differently from how a senior researcher would,” explained Tania Papkovskaia, a PhD student specialising in Parkinson’s disease research at University College London.

From cell and fly models, through to animal behaviour, human genetics, and clinical trials, this year’s symposium certainly did not fail to impress with a huge range and variety of cutting-edge research on display.

One of the speakers, Shmma Quraishe, a PhD candidate from the University of Southampton, gave a captivating, prize-winning talk about a novel drug for Alzheimer’s disease that is currently in phase 2 clinical trials. In Alzheimer’s disease, a protein known as tau malfunctions, causing the disassembly of the neuron’s transport system inside the cell. The drug, called NAP, works by stabilising the dying neuron’s microtubules – components essential for the normal transport of the cell’s molecular cargo.

“Using NAP we can basically bypass the pathogenic effects of tau by stabilising the microtubules, even if you have a dysfunction causing a microtubule breakdown,” she told me. “The clinical trials results should be out at the end of this year…we’re really looking forward to seeing what happens.”

This year’s first place prize for talks went to Ross Mounsey, who is currently undertaking his PhD at the University of Aberdeen. By using a neurotoxin called MPTP, which is widely used to develop animal models for testing new therapies in Parkinson’s disease, Ross has identified key signalling pathways responsible for reversing MPTP-induced abnormalities in movement. It is hoped that findings like this will lead to better treatments for the loss of controlled movement, which is so characteristic of the disease.

A particularly inspirational and heartfelt talk was given by Jenni McCabe from Newport, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 51. As every researcher knows, it is so easy to become bogged down with the basic science of disease that we often fail to appreciate the true impact these disorders have on people’s lives.

“We don’t expect there to be a cure discovered in our lifetime, but these events make us feel like somebody’s making progress,” she told me.

Alongside Jenni, Alison Underwood from Colwyn Bay on the north coast of Wales, who was told at 56 that she had the disease, said that as a former science teacher she gets the gist of most of the research and finds it encouraging.

“I find it very reassuring that there is such a breadth of research going on and it’s lovely to see so many young people in particular working hard and making these amazing discoveries.”

All in all, the eager young minds of today will have left the symposium with many future collaborations formed, and a renewed sense of resolve to make their mark in the fight against neurodegenerative disease.

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