From academia to industry and back again: in conversation with Dr Jo Jackson

Jo Jackson Connectome 2023

Recently awarded two prestigious fellowships by the Alzheimer’s Society, Dr Jo Jackson (Emerging Leader, UK DRI at Imperial) aims to investigate the changes taking place at synapses – the connections between neurons – during Alzheimer’s disease, to gain fresh insight into the mechanisms involved, and scope for potential therapeutic opportunities. We caught up with Dr Jackson to hear about her career journey, her work on the UK DRI Multi-‘Omics Atlas Project, and her plans during the fellowships.

Jo Jackson Website

Bridging the gap between academia and industry

After a PhD at Imperial and postdoc positions at Lund University and Imperial College London, Dr Jackson made the leap to industry. She took up a postdoc at Lilly, studying changes in synapses in animal models of Alzheimer’s. Before long, she was made a team leader with her own lab group, focused on imaging disease processes in preclinical models with a particular emphasis on synaptic changes. But when the company’s strategy shifted, Dr Jackson decided to return to academia, chasing the scientific challenges she was first excited by. This journey from academia to industry and back again, she says, gave her some unique and valuable skills.

“There were a few skills I picked up during my time in industry. One key one was project management, how to lead a project on time and on budget, which has been hugely helpful in my career since. The other aspect is drug discovery, thinking about how we develop therapeutic strategies – so things like, how do we get the drug into the brain, could there be off targets? And I think to drive any research forward, particularly in Alzheimer’s disease, we really need to bridge this gap between academia and industry. Hopefully, I can help do that.”

Building an atlas of the Alzheimer’s brain

Following her stint in industry, Dr Jackson joined the UK DRI at Imperial, where she led the Institute’s £2 million Multi-Omics Atlas Project (MAP). Funded by the UK DRI, the project was set up to create an ‘atlas’ of the brain at different stages of Alzheimer’s, to improve understanding of the processes that lead to people developing the disease. The main aim was to develop a resource pool for the community. The project wrapped up in 2023, papers are starting to be published and the data will soon be made publicly available. However, it wasn’t without challenges, Dr Jackson explains.

“We had a very strict inclusion exclusion criteria, but we soon realised that there is no ‘clean’ Alzheimer’s disease and no ‘clean’ controls. For example, our age range was 60 and above, and initially we said we wouldn’t take any cases with hypertension, but it’s just not possible. Likewise, most of the controls had some early-stage pathology.”

The project initially set out to study 12 brains of people who had Alzheimer’s at different stages of the disease, and six brains of people who did not have the condition. This target was exceeded and data was collected from 14 Alzheimer’s and 14 control brains. The team used an unprecedented range of advanced techniques to examine tissue from multiple brain regions, aiming to gain an understanding of the genetics, and the role of proteins and other factors in key characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Jackson and her team decided to broaden the scope of the project. Building on their initial plans, they also looked at variants of TREM2, a gene implicated in Alzheimer’s. The microglial response to TREM2 has been widely studied, but MAP was able to characterise its effect in neurons and astrocytes, another type of supporting cell.

Exploring synapse vulnerability in Alzheimer’s

Dementia Research Leader Dr Jo Jackson is the first recipient of the Alzheimer’s Society Carol Jennings Fellowship, and is supported by the Hamilton Neal Fund. The Fellowship was set up to honour Carol and her family whose contributions to Alzheimer’s research led to the development of the amyloid hypothesis. With these fellowships, Dr Jackson aims to employ advanced techniques to look at the role of genetics, proteins, and other factors in making synapses vulnerable to damage in Alzheimer’s disease.

“We will also look at whether we can use repurposed drugs to target the synapse,” Dr Jackson says. “There is emerging evidence that some drugs used in epilepsy and diabetes could be effective.”

Dr Richard Oakley, Associate Director of Research and Innovation at the Alzheimer’s Society, said:

I’m delighted we’re able to honour the dedication Carol Jennings has shown to advancing dementia research by awarding our first Alzheimer’s Society Carol Jennings Fellowship to one of our brilliant Dementia Research Leader Fellows, Dr Jo Jackson. Investing in the career of such an outstanding researcher is a fitting tribute to Carol and her commitment to a future where dementia no longer devastates lives.”

“Carol has done so much for Alzheimer’s research,” Dr Jackson adds, reflecting on being the first recipient of the new fellowship. “I’m so pleased that the family and the Alzheimer’s Society have chosen my research programme to support. I really hope my work can also have a lasting impact.”

To find out more about Dr Jo Jackson’s work, visit her UK DRI profile.

Article published: 21 February 2024
Banner image: Copyright UK DRI Ltd.