Dr Rebecca San Gil

Emerging MND researchers expand their global connections

From 7 – 9 December 2018, the Motor Neuron Disease Association held it’s 29th International Symposium in Glasgow, Scotland.

Thanks to the financial support provided by the Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarships, three young Australian researchers were able to attend this global event.

The Scholarships were aimed at the next-generation of researchers who are working towards a better future for people living with motor neurone disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Funds for the Scholarships were raised via the Magnified Science Art Exhibition organised last year by PhD candidate Rachelle Balez and Research Assistant Clare Watson from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI).

Attendance at the Symposium was a wonderful opportunity for the researchers to expand their connections and keep up-to-date with the latest knowledge in the field. They have now returned home, ready to share their new insights with colleagues and the community.

Here are their stories of what they learned, and how it will influence their research going forward.

Dr Rebecca San Gil, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Queensland Brain Institute 

I am extremely grateful to have received a Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship. This award enabled me to travel to the 29th International Symposium on ALS/MND. This was the first time I had attended this Symposium and I thoroughly enjoyed the program, meeting the speakers, and the poster sessions. Glasgow in winter served as a great backdrop to meet up with colleagues and discuss science over a pint of hand-pulled beer and haggis in cosy pubs. It is very inspiring and motivating to meet such a large group of international researchers working on such diverse aspects of MND but maintaining the same goal – to improve the quality of life and extend the lives of people living with MND.

There were several aspects to the Symposium that stood out from other conferences I have attended previously, including an address from the Royal Patron of MND Scotland and the MND Association, HRH Princess Anne! Also unique to this Symposium was the incorporation of a “Big Debate”, where leading clinicians and researchers argued for and against the stratification of MND patients into sub-classes, particularly for better patient outcomes in clinical trials. There was an interactive aspect to the debate enabling the audience to ask questions and participate in polls through the Symposium app, which I enjoyed. Professor John Cryan kicked off the the Symposium with an energetic and entertaining seminar on the gut-brain axis, which I’m sure made us all think of the old adage, “you are what you eat”.

Overall, there was a strong recognition in the presentations delivered at the Symposium that MND is a multifactorial disease. Moving forward I think there should be a stronger focus on inhibiting the first molecular events that lead to the cascade of cellular and molecular dysfunctions in MND.

There was a consensus that the first molecular events are likely to be the mislocalisation of TDP-43 from the nucleus to the cytoplasm and subsequent oligomerization and inclusion body formation. This re-affirms the strategy taken by our laboratory (The Neurodegeneration and Pathobiology Laboratory led by Dr Adam Walker) to identify the proteins and cellular pathways involved in these early disease processes in order to intervene and inhibit disease onset to more effectively treat or cure people living with MND.

Our laboratory is currently investigating the anti-aggregation and anti-apoptotic activities of target proteins that were recently identified in a longitudinal proteomics study of a TDP-43 mouse model of MND. We are generating some very interesting findings, some of which I presented on my poster at this Symposium. I thoroughly enjoyed the poster session at the Symposium. My work generated a lot of interest and I had many researchers stop by to provide constructive feedback on the work. I am looking forward to returning to the laboratory, implementing the feedback I received from my colleagues, and the possibility of presenting another update of this research at the 30th International Symposium on ALS/MND in Perth this year.

Natalie Guthrie, PhD candidate, IHMRI

My PhD project centres around understanding the role of the tau protein and its deposits in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) neurons. For my project I am fortunate enough to use two very distinct methods of analysing tau pathology ALS, having access to both human post-mortem cohort, as well as induced-pluripotent stem cells taken from patients with ALS and healthy controls.

Receiving the Magnified Justin Yerbury Travel Scholarship has meant a lot to me, allowing me to travel to my first international conference. It was such a wonderful experience to combine two passions of mine, travel and science. Though unable to present at the Symposium, I found it extremely worthwhile, and honestly revelled in the experience. It was so rewarding to be able to attend talks given by world-renowned researchers in the ALS field, that I commonly reference in my day-to-day writing and work. I found the Symposium very enlightening and interactive, with some sessions specifically designed to involve the audience in a debate about important topics in the field.

The Symposium itself was massive, with just over 1,400 attendees, including Princess Anne! Being such a large Symposium it was really enlightening to attend talks in a variety of sub-fields that I wouldn’t usually get to hear about. It was very beneficial to hear talks from a more clinical perspective as it gave me a better understanding of the wider field of ALS research. This is so important as I feel it is very easy to get caught up in your question or hypothesis, and loose touch with the broader picture.

The days were very busy with a solid twelve hours of conference to get through. From drosophila and mice, to cell and stem cell derived motor neurons, I found it really helpful to see the differing aspects and models that were in use to study everything, from protein aggregation to impaired axonal transport. In particular, I found there was a real emphasis on non-neuronal cells, with some really interesting talks on the role of astrocytes and microglia in ALS pathogenesis, highlighting their role in neuroinflammation and metabolism of the disease. Furthermore, the Symposium highlighted some exceptional techniques that are being used to study some of the biggest topics of interest in the ALS field. One such technique that I found really innovative was known as ‘optoTDP’. This technique utilises light as a switchable element to enable the TDP-43 protein to shuttle, where it is often mislocalised in the cytoplasm of ALS neurons. This technique was completely foreign to me before this Symposium. I found it extremely fascinating.

A particular highlight for me was hearing about some really interesting things going on in the tau in ALS field, with an extremely interesting poster session and hearing about the potential for collaboration with one of only six labs studying tau in ALS from my supervisor. In addition, there were several talks that were really relevant to my research, with some fascinating perspectives on post-mortem tissue analysis and the notion of a disease continuum between ALS and frontotemporal dementia. Whilst in the cell and molecular fields a talk on nucleocytoplasmic transport was of great interest to me as it gave me some brilliant ideas and potential new targets that will definitely help me with my study in the upcoming year.

Overall, I found the Symposium extremely enlightening. It has helped me better understand how to tackle my own problems and questions in my PhD, and without a doubt broadened my appreciation for research in the ALS field.

There are so many different aspects to ALS and it was really uplifting to see scientists and patients alike attend such a collaborative event focused on bringing together our knowledge to help those currently living and suffering from this awful disease.

René Jeżewski and Natalie Guthrie. Photo supplied.

René Jeżewski and Natalie Guthrie. Photo supplied.

All I can say is again thank you for allowing me to attend such a wonderful event. I’ve gained a new-found motivation for my project and a fresh perspective. I can’t wait to attend and hopefully present at this year’s conference in Perth!  First and foremost I’d like to thank everyone involved in setting up and making Magnified possible. Not only was it a privilege to have had this opportunity, but it was just as much a pleasure to be involved with the exhibition and see art help with science communication to the broader community.

René Jeżewski, PhD candidate, University of New South Wales

This year’s Symposium was home to more than 1,400 delegates, all keen to hear the latest and greatest of MND research. Numerous MND sufferers, each in different stages of their disease and some only recognisable by the characteristic slur in their speech, formed part of the assembly. It was a bitter-sweet thought that these sufferers were devoted to the fight against MND, despite they themselves, not being able to eventually see it won.

Anne, Princess Royal, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II graced the opening assembly of delegates who stood, jaws dropped, as she entered the hall and prepared to humbly inspire them with her personal commitment and support in the fight against MND.

The classic, ‘great’ debate of ‘one disease, many faces or many diseases?’ that followed had delegates eagerly clutching their phones, awaiting confirmation to assert their views and opinions in what would ultimately decide the fate of a traditional, Scottish ‘Irn Bru’ and a ‘Laphroaig’ single malt Scotch whiskey – all in the spirit of debate!

Despite many agreeing that MND is one disease, many faces – the ultimate prize was awarded to Ammar Al-Chalabi of the United Kingdom, and Orla Hardiman of Ireland, who argued tirelessly that MND is a collection of many diseases which requires a personalised, more exclusive treatment approach.

Experts from across the globe then delivered news about neuroinflammation, gut microbiota, gene discovery, novel in vitro and in vivo ALS models, promising biomarkers and therapeutic targets, emerging disease mechanisms and, of course, enhancements in clinical trial design and implementation – setting the stage for an epic three days of insight and intrigue.

Outside the halls of the conference, the skies of Glasgow lay blanketed by heavy clouds – rain often falling in the cold of the day and night.

Glaswegian streets sang a different tune – festive cheer echoed through the streets as people bustled with excitement, strolling up and down busy markets lined by buildings that had been littered with mesmerising lights. Hordes of specialty foods, trinkets and treasures lay at the heart of it all. Utterly spoiled for choice. 

It was a spectacular adventure that quickly drew to a dreaded end. Until December, the warm weather and sandy beaches of Perth awaits for the 30th International Symposium on ALS/MND!

Related stories

Justin Yerbury MND travel scholarships announced

Magnified raises over $10,000 for MND research

Media contact

Louise Negline, Communications Coordinator

t: 4221 4702

m: 0417 044 867

e: louisenegline@ihmri.org.au

Top picture: Dr Rebecca San Gil. Photo supplied.

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