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Spare-time science

Alex Jeans (Copyright: Alex Jeans)

Alex Jeans (Copyright: Alex Jeans)

In the first of a mini-series of posts from recipients of MRC Centenary Awards, we hear from pathologist Alex Jeans from the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford on how he’ll use his extra time and resources to pursue research into Alzheimer’s disease that until now he’s been doing in his spare time.

As a hospital pathologist specialising in diseases of the nervous system, I have spent a lot of time diagnosing both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and I’ve become aware of how common yet devastating they are. As things stand, there is no treatment which can slow the progress of either disease, and all we can do is manage the distressing symptoms as they appear.

Accurate diagnosis of these diseases is extremely important, and as pathologists we get some satisfaction from that. However, I‘ve always wanted to be part of the effort to understand these diseases at a fundamental level, which I believe is essential if we are to devise truly effective treatments.

In 2009 I received an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship to go back into the lab to study the basic biology of Parkinson’s disease. Well before brain cells start to die in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, changes take place at synapses — the structures by which nerve cells in the brain make physical contacts and communicate with each other.

Understanding these earliest stages of the disease is particularly important as it offers a possible chance to intervene and, just maybe, put the brakes on the process early on, before people are badly affected.

A brain slice from an Alzheimer's patient shows severe shrinkage (Credit: Flickr/AJC1)

A brain slice from an Alzheimer’s patient shows severe shrinkage (Credit: Flickr/AJC1)

I soon started to think that changes in how synapses work might be helping to spark off other diseases too, including Alzheimer’s disease. I had the tools to look into this from the work I was already doing on Parkinson’s disease, and so I carried out some initial experiments in the spare hours between experiments in my Parkinson’s disease research. I looked at nerve cells from rats that have a version of Alzheimer’s disease and found a number of changes in the synapses that had not been described before.

These results were exciting, but the future of the work was uncertain, since I had no time or money set aside for the project. Fortunately, the MRC Centenary Awards came along at just the right time and I now have an extra nine months to dedicate completely to following up these initial findings.

I am starting this work now, and am looking at mechanisms in the nerve cells which might account for the changes I have seen. Later on, I will look at how these same changes might be helping to drive the disease.

The hope, of course, is that the understanding gained from studies like these will lead to new approaches to treatment and ensure that come the bicentennial of the MRC (and I hope long before), these diseases will be treatable and will no longer devastate patients and their families.

Alex Jeans

The MRC Centenary Awards have been provided to the very best MRC-funded early-career researchers to give them extra time and resources to build on their achievements and learn new skills. £14m was made available for the awards, which mark 100 years of the MRC in 2013.

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