What attracted you to the UK DRI?
For the past 5 years, my lab has been developing tools and technologies to probe a bit better into human neurobiology. We’ve been tackling questions related to how neurons and circuits are engineered, physically constructed and how they work in the real world. I’ve had a long-standing interest in disease modelling; I started my PhD a long time ago modelling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in vitro, and trying to explain neurodegeneration with human models.
My lab joining the UK DRI at King’s happened as a result of a nice combination of our work reaching a point of maturity and the Centre going in a new direction with Jernej Ule as its new Director. I was already working with Jernej on other projects, and we got talking and realised it would be the perfect time to apply some of the discoveries my lab has made, directly to neurodegeneration and MND/ALS. So it just made sense for us, we’re following the direction of the science. I’m really excited about the opportunity, it’s an amazing centre to be in and we’ll be working alongside an excellent group of colleagues.
What will your research programme focus on?
I am an engineer, and a biotechnologist by training so I have a very practical mind. As I have moved through my biomedical career, I’ve often wondered about how things are shaped and why we don’t pay more attention to the engineering and the physics of it.
Our recent discoveries show that cells are built in a specific way for a reason. Neurons have a long extension, an axon, that connects different parts of body that are sometimes metres away. There is specific interplay between physics and biology in the neuron, and the molecular mechanisms that are involved in disease. This made us realise there is a potential to look at models of MND in vitro in a completely different way and extract more meaning from them, in order to better understand the biology.
Specifically, we’ll be looking at the axonal biology of motor neurons – how the length, size and shape influences the RNA and mitochondrial biology within the axon. Through this, we think we might find some of the early mechanisms by which the neuron dies in ALS/MND. At the same time we are collaborating with a number of people within the UK DRI to bring the modelling platforms, circuit building and bioengineering systems we’ve already developed directly to disease modelling and potentially even to the clinic in some of the programmes that involve screening for drugs.