Having completed her Notre Dame PhD studies at the Perron Institute for Neurological and Translation Science,The University of Notre Dame Australia School of Health Sciences graduate Gabriella MacDougall has secured a research position at globally renowned Duke University in North Carolina, culturing representative models of chronic neurodegenerative diseases using Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs).
As part of Professor Chiba-Falek’s lab at Duke University, Gabriella’s research could prove to be invaluable to the healthcare industry, with potential ramifications that could change the way we understand and treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s.
From 1990 to 2016 an estimated 9 million people died due to neurological disease, roughly 16.5 per cent of all global deaths. Neurological disorders are the second leading cause of death after heart disease and with 276 million people experiencing disability-adjusted life-years due to one or more of the conditions that come under this umbrella term, it is also the leading cause of disability.
Passionate about her work and enthused about the future prospects of the research she will do over the coming years, Gabriella makes the complexities of molecular neurobiology and genetic science both understandable and fascinating, a skill that has held her in good stead as a tutor.
“At present, it is incredibly difficult to study the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s as there is no way of directly examining the brain tissue until they are deceased. But we can take the iPSCs that we keep in blood cells or bone marrow for example, and mimic the process they go through to become other cells, such as brain cells.
Think of a tree, roots deep into the ground supporting a large trunk, branches reaching out skyward. Everything starts at the first shoot poking through the dirt. Left to its own devices, the shoot could diverge in any number of directions, growing and building onto itself with branches, twigs, and leaves. But, as any bonsai enthusiast will tell you, with careful pruning and shaping it is possible to control the growth of the tree and gradually mould it into any form.
For Gabriella, iPSCs are a shoot she can nudge in whatever direction she likes, nurturing and shaping to create any type of cell. By doing so, she will be able to develop disease models that, for all intents and purposes, display all, or at least some, of the pathological processes that can be observed in the patient. This means the model could be used for testing medicine, understanding more about the patient themselves, and even opens the door to the development of individualised treatment while the patient is still alive.
“There are several benefits,” Gabriella says, “Obviously there’s the solved problem of not having to wait for post-mortem brain tissue, but there’s also the development of personalised medicine.
It allows us in a more accurate way to understand the disease a specific individual is suffering from, what’s going on in their brain and how we can help them.
The thing about treating a disease is that you have to understand the disease before you can do anything. Sun Tzu once said ‘know your enemy’, of course this was in reference to war, but it is equally pertinent in studying disease.
Until we fully understand the differing conditions and variables that can lead to a person developing a neurological condition, it is near impossible for treatments to be created. Research such as Gabriella’s is adding to the already significant body of work and presents a potentially substantial increase in our knowledge of neurological diseases.
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