Touching Lives - November 2007
New research into motor neurone disease
About 1,500 people each year in the UK are diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). Many die within just 5 years, after progressively losing control of their speech, swallowing and breathing, and there is no cure.
Researchers funded by Action Medical Research are investigating how nerve cells try to recover from the destruction caused by this cruel disease, in the hope of identifying possible future treatments.
The symptoms of MND result from the death of certain nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.These nerve cells, called motor neurones, send messages from the brain to the muscles, telling the muscles what to do. In most cases, the cause of the motor neurone damage remains a mystery. Degeneration within a group of motor neurones is progressive, so that while some cells may be dying, others survive, remaining, as yet, unaffected.
Researchers at the Institute of Neurology, University College London, led by Dr Anthony Pullen, are using their Action Medical Research grant to help increase our understanding of the disease process by investigating two opposing phenomena.They are investigating how surviving motor neurones attempt to compensate for the death of neighbouring motor neurones. Mounting evidence suggests surviving nerve cells try to re-establish the lines of communication by forming new connections, called synapses, with other nerve cells and muscles.The team is investigating this process in more detail, and hopes to find ways to encourage it using drug therapy.
The team is also studying how the disease process leads to the production of substances that discourage surviving nerve cells from making new connections. Researchers hope to find ways to block the action of these substances using drugs that are already undergoing laboratory tests for potential use in spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis.
The researchers stress that their work is in the early stages. But they are gathering vital information, which they hope will be of key use to the research community as they strive to find new treatments for MND.The ultimate goal is to reduce the suffering of people with this distressing illness, and increase their life expectancy, allowing them to retain their independence and quality of life for longer.
This project has been funded by a generous grant from The Henry Smith Charity.