Meet the team

Adrian Isaacs

"I hope that we will deliver fundamental new understanding of the molecular causes of frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and translate these findings towards new therapies." Adrian Isaacs
UK DRI Group Leader

As part of his undergraduate studies Prof Adrian Isaacs spent one year working at the Mayo Clinic with John Hardy and Mike Hutton, where he was part of the team that discovered that mutations in MAPT gene cause frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Following completion of a PhD at Oxford University and post-doctoral studies at Harvard Medical School, Prof Isaacs established his own group at UCL. As part of this UK DRI research programme, Adrian is investigating the molecular and cellular mechanisms that lead to FTD and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

1. At a glance

Tackling dementia: from genes to therapy

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) are clinically distinct neurodegenerative diseases. But the discovery that they share a common cause – an expansion of a six-letter DNA sequence within the C9orf72 gene - is helping to revolutionize our understanding of the diseases.

Scientists are studying the biological impact of the faulty version of the C9orf72 gene to work out the mechanisms that lead to FTD and ALS. They theorise that the resulting protein may not function properly and/or be toxic to neurons. The gene is also known to be highly active in immune cells in the brain, however, little is known about its role in these cell types and how this may contribute to disease.

Prof Adrian Isaacs is investigating the underlying molecular mechanisms behind C9orf72-related FTD and ALS using a variety of experimental techniques and model systems. He is also studying its role in immune cells, in collaboration with Dr Soyon Hong, Group Leader at UK DRI at UCL, and exploring its relationship with other proteins implicated in neurodegenerative diseases. The ultimate goal is to develop innovative treatment strategies – such as novel gene therapies.

2. Scientific goals

An intronic GGGGCC repeat expansion in C9orf72 is the most common genetic cause of both frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The repeats are translated by an unconventional mechanism termed repeat-associated non-ATG translation into five different dipeptide repeat proteins (DPRs). The team has previously shown that DPRs can be very damaging to neurons. They have now performed a large-scale modifier screen in fruit flies expressing GGGGCC repeats in adult neurons. They have identified several genes that improve the survival of these flies. These genes have not previously been implicated in C9orf72 FTD/ALS and so may represent completely novel pathways for rescuing C9orf72 repeat toxicity, and potentially other forms of neurodegeneration.

The team is now extending investigation of these genes using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from people with the C9orf72 repeat expansion. They are also trying to decipher whether these genes can improve mouse models of C9orf72 repeat expansion and aim to determine if they are potential candidates for gene therapy.

Adrian’s group have also recently developed new 'knock-in' mouse models to investigate each of the individual DPRs. These knock-in mice provide a more accurate disease model because the level of the normal C9orf72 protein is also reduced - as is observed in human patients. There is increasing interest in whether loss of the normal function of C9orf72 contributes or sensitises to neurodegeneration. One reason for this is that C9orf72 is involved in endolysosomal function and is also expressed in immune cells. The team’s newly generated knock-in mice offer a unique opportunity to investigate these pathways and their contribution to disease. 

Main objectives and research goals:

1. Characterise new C9orf72 modifier genes in flies, iPSC-neurons and mouse models.

2. Investigate new mechanisms by which the C9orf72 repeat expansion causes neurodegeneration. 

3. Investigate potential new gene therapy approaches for C9orf72 and related disorders.

4. Characterise the role of immune cell dysfunction in C9orf72 FTD/ALS. 

3. Team members

Dr Katie Wilson (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Carmelo Milioto (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Magda Atilano (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Almudena Santos (Technician)
Mirjam Adams (Technician)
Olivia Attrebi (Technician)
Eszter Katona (Technician)
Liam Kempthorne (PhD Student)
Benedikt Holbling (PhD Student)
Sally Salomonsson (PhD Student)
Catherine Heffner (PhD Student)
Ashling Giblin (PhD Student)

4. Collaborations

Within UK DRI:

  • Prof Henrik Zetterberg, UK DRI at UCL

Beyond UK DRI:

  • Prof Elizabeth Fisher, UCL
  • Dr Tom Cunningham, MRC Harwell

5. Topics

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), human iPSC neurons, disease models, c9orf72

6. Techniques

Drosophila models, patient IPSC-neurons, mouse models, CRISPR/Cas13, Simoa ELISA biomarker assay for the polyGP DPR

7. Key publications

Balendra R, Isaacs AM. C9orf72-mediated ALS and FTD: multiple pathways to disease. Nat Rev Neurol. 2018;14 (9):544-558.

Fratta P, Sivakumar P, Humphrey J, Lo K, Ricketts T, Oliveira H, Brito-Armas JM, Kalmar B, Ule A, Yu Y, Birsa N, Bodo C, Collins T, Conicella AE, Mejia Maza A, Marrero-Gagliardi A, Stewart M, Mianne J, Corrochano S, Emmett W, Codner G, Groves M, Fukumura R, Gondo Y, Lythgoe M, Pauws E, Peskett E, Stanier P, Teboul L, Hallegger M, Calvo A, Chiò A, Isaacs AM, Fawzi NL, Wang E, Housman DE, Baralle F, Greensmith L, Buratti E, Plagnol V, Fisher EM, Acevedo-Arozena A. Mice with endogenous TDP-43 mutations exhibit gain of splicing function and characteristics of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. EMBO J. 2018;37(11). pii: e98684.

Fratta P, Isaacs AM. The snowball effect of RNA binding protein dysfunction in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Brain. 2018 May 1;141(5):1236-1238.

Moens TG, Mizielinska S, Niccoli T, Mitchell JS, Thoeng A, Ridler CE, Grönke S, Esser J, Heslegrave A, Zetterberg H, Partridge L, Isaacs AM. Sense and antisense RNA are not toxic in Drosophila models of C9orf72-associated ALS/FTD. Acta Neuropathol. 2018;135(3):445-457.

Simone R, Balendra R, Moens TG, Preza E, Wilson KM, Heslegrave A, Woodling NS, Niccoli T, Gilbert-Jaramillo J, Abdelkarim S, Clayton EL, Clarke M, Konrad M, Nicoll AJ, Mitchell J, Calvo A, Chio A, Houlden H, Polke JM, Ismail MA, Stephens CE, Vo T, Farahat AA, Wilson WD, Boykin DW, Zetterberg H, Partridge L, Wray S, Parkinson G, Neidle S, Patani R, Fratta P, Isaacs AM. G-quadruplex-binding small molecules ameliorate C9orf72 FTD/ALS pathology in vitro and in vivo. EMBO Mol Med. 2018;10 (1):22-31

8. Lab website

Founding funders

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