On a sunny, Saturday morning, the MRC Toxicology Unit in Leicester, hosted the 6th Researchers Meeting organised by the Parkinson’s East Midlands Research Support Network. The meeting began with the arrival of scientists from Cambridge, Nottingham and Leicester and Parky people from the Midlands area.
They all gathered in the MRC-TU coffee room before a series of research seminars. After some coffee and biscuits, Miguel began with by welcoming everyone and, shortly after, introduced the first speaker, Dr. Nicoleta Moisoi, a researcher from De Montfort University in Leicester.
Nicoleta’s presentation focused on her research into what happens with mitochondria, the energy generators in our body fail. Her talk covered some interesting findings linking defects in mitochondria to damage to the DNA, genetic material contained in the cell nucleus. You can find more about Nicoleta’s research here.
The next presentation was given by Dr. Simon Stott from the University of Cambridge. Simon explained that he is conducting a clinical study funded by BIRAX and Parkinson’s UK and involves a collaboration with Prof Hossam Haick that studies novel ways to detect diseases through breath (see an explanation by Prof. Hossam here).
This study investigates how breath sampling in Parkinson’s disease could be used in the future for the early diagnosis. There were some interesting discussions on this topic and Simon proposed that in the future, a “breath analysis” microchip might be integrated with your smartphone, a “SniffPhone” and constantly monitor your breath. This, in turn might be helpful in detecting the onset of diseases such as Parkinson’s and therefore allow a medical intervention before it it too late.
The next speaker was Dr. Lisa Chakrabarti from the University of Nottingham. Lisa is a regular contributor to our annual Researchers Meetings.
Lisa presented some of her recent work analysing alternations in lipids (fat molecules) in brains of Parky patients. Lisa explained that some of the alterations in a class of lipid-derived hormones, called eicosanoids, are associated with brain inflammation.
We then had a presentation from Dr. Manos Metzakopian, from the University of Cambridge. Manos is interested in developing new approaches to tackle Parkinson’s disease using genetic screens with human cells in culture. He explained how he is using dopaminergic neurons, obtained from human stem cells.
He uses a popular tool called CRISPR to edit their genomes and then treats them with drugs that inhibit mitochondria and eventually kills them. By studying the edited cells that survive this process he intends to identify new genes that are important for keeping cells alive and devise new drugs to enhance the function of such genes.
Epigenetics is a field of science that studied heritable changes in gene function without affecting the sequence of the DNA coding for genes. The next speaker, Dr. Reinhard Störger, presented his findings on the epigenetic changes that affect a gene called PON1. This gene is involved in protecting cells from a class of insecticides called organophosphates.
Reinhard explained that Parkinson’s disease is often associated with exposure to pesticides, particularly in the farming communities, and therefore epigenetic changes that lower the function of genes such as PON1 might increase the incidence of Parkinson’s in farmers handling insecticides. Reihnard went on to describe an analysis of epigenetic changes in brains of Parky patients and reported that these brains have higher levels of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine, an epigenetic marker.
Next we had a joint presentation by Nicoleta and Lisa. One of the objectives of these regular researcher’s meetings is to stimulate interactions between the scientists that attend them. It was therefore very exciting to see a collaboration developing between Nicoleta and Lisa. They explained how they are now joining efforts and expertise to investigate how exercise affects Parkinson’s using the fruit fly as a model organism.
Nicoleta and Lisa were followed by Dr. Nilam Jussab, a senior lecturer in clinical pharmacy and pharmacy practice with De Montfort University. Nilam explained that pharmacist trainees have a lot to gain from direct contact and interactions with Parky patients.
All present at the meeting agreed and it was decided to explore ways to achieve this. Perhaps as a start, students could become involved in the running of meetings such as this as volunteers or even consider contributing to this blog.
Nilam’s presentation ended an excellent morning session of seminars and we are all grateful for the participation of all invited speakers.
The morning’s talks were followed by a tour of Miguel’ lab which uses fruit flies to explore signalling pathways of toxicity associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Visitors observed research in action and discussed experiments with scientists that work at the MRC Toxicology Unit. Look at the whole of the blog and you will find a couple of articles devoted to this research. This was an valuable experience not only to the visitors to Miguel’s lab but also to the researchers explaining the research. According to Miguel’s team, there are not many opportunities for them to explain their research to non-scientists. Non-scientists often ask much more challenging questions, compared to their scientist colleagues…
Over lunch, patients, carers and researchers learned more about each other and how scientific research directly impacts the lives of those living with Parkinson’s.
This was again a well-received event, so much so, that the organisers are now considering a second Researchers’ Meeting later this year. You should look out for details to be published on this blog!