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Research screens for drugs that will help patients with MND

Research screens for drugs that will help patients with MND June 20, 2014

Potentially ground-breaking new research into how different drugs can alter the development of Motor Neurone Disease is underway at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research.

The drug discovery project follows the arrival of Dr Emma Scotter from King’s College London to take up the Aotearoa Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland, with Professors Mike Dragunow and Margaret Brimble. Dr Scotter will lead research into around 4000 different drugs to see if any of the compounds can influence, or change, the development of Motor Neurone Disease in patient brain cells.

Motor Neurone Disease (MND) is a neurodegenerative disease in which the nerve cells, or neurones, controlling the muscles that enable us to move, speak, swallow and breathe slowly undergo degeneration and die. There are around 300 people in New Zealand with this fatal disease.

MND Association President Beth Watson has welcomed the opportunity to highlight this vital research on the eve of MND Global Awareness Day on June 21. “If we’re going to make a difference to people’s lives with MND we need research like this, so we can better understand the factors that cause it and ultimately find a cure.

“It’s a really exciting project and we’re lucky to have the likes of Dr Scotter and MND Patron and head of the Centre for Brain Research Professor Richard Faull working on MND research in New Zealand.”

Dr Scotter, who worked with fellow Kiwi MND expert Professor Chris Shaw in his King’s College London laboratory before returning to Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research this year, is excited about the project. She says it brings together unique factors that will not only help better understand MND but may even find a drug that can help cure the disease.

“The first is working with a world-leading biobank, established and run by Professor Mike Dragunow with a $1 million philanthropic donation from the Hugh Green Foundation, which grows cells from the brains of patients who had MND,” Dr Scotter says. “Those cells have the same genetic code, and were exposed to the same environment, that the patient with MND had.”

“What we really want to do from here is to screen for drugs that will eventually help patients with MND.”

Dr Scotter, working with biobank staff, will use these specially cultivated cells – cells which normally surround blood vessels in the brain and which control blood supply and inflammatory signals to the nerve cells affected in MND - to test their response to more than 4000 different drugs. These drugs have been obtained from two large drug libraries, one containing manufactured compounds and the second derived from natural products, the result of a project led by the University of Auckland’s Professor Margaret Brimble. Dr Scotter will also work closely with her former colleagues at King’s College London.

The research project takes New Zealand’s MND research to an exciting new phase. “The best outcome would be to find that one of these 4000 different drugs could actually alter or slow the effects of MND in patient brain cells.” No-matter what the outcome however, the team will certainly learn a lot more about cell functions which are affected by MND and contribute to the increasing understanding of this disease.

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