Sheffield Institute for
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Ambitious research project trials promising new therapy for motor neurone disease

Researchers from the University of Sheffield‘s Institute for Translational Neuroscience are involved in an ambitious European research project aimed at finding a new treatment for motor neurone disease (MND).

The collaboration between world-leading academic research groups aims to identify the therapeutic potential of a molecule (interleukin-2) that occurs naturally in our bodies and helps to regulate our immune system and the inflammation that contributes to motor neurone injury in MND.

Currently, a low dose of the molecule, interleukin-2 (IL-2), is being developed for the treatment of conditions affecting the immune system, including diabetes, arthritis, liver disease, and the complications of treating leukaemia and other cancers with stem cells.

While IL-2 has been used for many years at high dose to treat cancer, it is much safer – but still effective – when used at low doses in these immune disorders, as it can damp down harmful immune responses.

Our main objective is to achieve a breakthrough in the treatment of MND by significantly slowing the progress of the disease through a low dose of IL-2,” said Dr Gilbert Bensimon, University Hospital, Nimes, France, who is project leader of Modifying Immune Response and Outcomes in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (MIROCALS).

To date, only one drug – riluzole – has been shown to slow the advance of MND, but its impact on the quality of life of people with the illness is marginal. Many other drugs have been tested but have failed.

Professor Nigel Leigh, co-lead and chief investigator for the clinical trial, of Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said:
“We are delighted to be collaborating with world-leading research groups in biomarker development, immunology, genetics and gene expression on this project. This collaboration will allow us to research a number of factors that may affect MND. Taken together, these analyses should allow us to ‘individualise’ responses to treatment that may be revealed during the study.”

In May, MIROCALS was awarded €5.98 million by the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, under the EU Horizon 2020 Scheme. Additional support for the Clinical Centres has been awarded by the French Health Ministry Programme de Recherche Clinique (PHRC) in France and is under consideration by the MND Association in the UK.

Other novel features of the MIROCALS study include:

  • the incorporation of ‘biomarkers’ to monitor the activity of the disease, the state of the immune system, and their responses to low-dose IL-2
  • the inclusion of people newly diagnosed with MND. This means that researchers can monitor treatment from an early stage in the evolution of the disease and maximise the potential to detect benefit from low dose IL-2
  • the study of complex genetic factors that may contribute to the response to treatment with riluzole and/or low dose IL-2.

Project planning will start in September this year and researchers intend to recruit the first patients into the trial by September 2016. They aim to complete the study in 2019. In the meantime, the team is working on the essential groundwork for MIROCALS, including a small pilot study in France.

Professor Leigh adds:
“In addition to developing a new treatment for MND, MIROCALS aims to provide a new approach to clinical trials to break the impasse in developing new treatments for progressive disorders that include MND, dementia and Parkinson’s disease."

Professor Pamela Shaw, Director of SITraN and one of the principal investigators involved in this study, said:

This is a very excitinPam pic web size.jpgg experimental medicine study involving several leading European centres for MND research. Not only will we be able to investigate whether interleukin-2 slows the disease course in MND by modifying the inflammatory response within the nervous system, but we will also be investigating in the SITraN laboratories, in a work-package led by Dr Janine Kirby, biomarkers which will tell us at an early stage whether the treatment is beneficial and whether all patients or a particular subgroup develop a positive response.

We were very fortunate to receive funding support for this programme from the EU Horizon 2020 programme and the MND Association in a very stringent grant funding competition.”


Congratulations to Zahra Zahid: Winner of the Student Employee of the Year Awards 2015

First Year PhD Student Zahra Zahid who works in Professor Annalena Venneri’s Translational Neuropsychology Group has won a University of Sheffield Student Employee of the Year Award in the category “Off Campus Above and Beyond”.  Moreover, Zahra has been chosen to go through to the Student Employer of the Year 2015 national level of the competition.ZZ.jpg

The Student Employee of the Year Awards is a national competition that aims to recognise and promote the outstanding contributions and achievements of students who combine part-time work with their study commitments. Employers are asked to nominate their exceptional students in three different categories; Above and Beyond, Step Up to Leadership and Commercial Impact, these can be either working on or off campus.

Zahra has won the regional award for her work as an A-level Biology Tutor at Oak Tree High School. Zahra said: "I am very grateful to be nominated. Teaching the children, I realised that I have a passion for it. This is something I wouldn’t have found out without taking this part-time job.”

The national award ceremony takes place on Thursday 2nd July in Liverpool – good luck to Zahra and all our University of Sheffield candidates at national level.

To find out more about the Student Employee of the Year Awards visit: and watch the video to hear what this year’s winners had to say


It’s in your blood: Links found between blood type and risk of cognitive decline

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Sheffield has revealed blood types play a role in the development of the nervous system and may cause a higher risk of developing cognitive decline.

BrainThe research, carried out in collaboration with the IRCCS San Camillo Hospital Foundation in Venice, shows that people with an ‘O’ blood type have more grey matter in their brain, which helps to protect against diseases such as Alzheimer’s, than those with ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘AB’ blood types.

Research fellow Matteo De Marco and Professor Annalena Venneri, from the University’s Department of Neuroscience, made the discovery after analysing the results of 189 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans from healthy volunteers.

The researchers calculated the volumes of grey matter within the brain and explored the differences between different blood types.

The results, published in The Brain Research Bulletin, show that individuals with an ‘O’ blood type have more grey matter in the posterior proportion of the cerebellum.

In comparison, those with ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘AB’ blood types had smaller grey matter volumes in temporal and limbic regions of the brain, including the left hippocampus, which is one of the earliest part of the brain damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

These findings indicate that smaller volumes of grey matter are associated with non-‘O’ blood types.

As we age a reduction of grey matter volumes is normally seen in the brain, but later in life this grey matter difference between blood types will intensify as a consequence of ageing.

“The findings seem to indicate that people who have an ‘O’ blood type are more protected against the diseases in which volumetric reduction is seen in temporal and mediotemporal regions of the brain like with Alzheimer’s disease for instance,” said Matteo DeMarco.

“However additional tests and further research are required as other biological mechanisms might be involved.”

Professor Annalena Venneri added: “What we know today is that a significant difference in volumes exists, and our findings confirm established clinical observations. In all likelihood the biology of blood types influences the development of the nervous system. We now have to understand how and why this occurs.”


Weight management is critical for survival in motor neuron disease

Researchers from around the UK, led by a team at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), have found new evidence to support early nutrition management in motor neuron disease (MND).

The first UK wide study into tube feeding in MND (ProGas) has found that MND patients benefited most from enteral feeding when they had lost less than 10 per cent of their body weight before the intervention. In contrast, significant weight loss at the onset of enteral feeding was associated with shorter survival.

Based on the results of the study, published in the journal The Lancet Neurology, the investigators recommend enteral feeding for MND patients as early as possible at five per cent weight loss from MND diagnosis.

Chief Investigator Dr Chris McDermott, Reader in Neurology at SITraN and Consultant Neurologist at the MND Care and Research Centre at the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, said:  “These findings will help health care professionals and patients to make informed decisions about the choice of gastrostomy method and timing.”

The prospective multi-centre evaluation of gastrostomy in patients with MND (ProGas) included data from 24 centres in the UK. A total of 330 patients in the study underwent gastrostomy which entails the insertion of a tube in the stomach to facilitate enteral feeding and were followed up for 12 months. The study aimed to provide evidence on the benefits and timing of gastrostomy feeding, as well as the optimum tube insertion method in terms of safety and clinical outcome.

Study author Dr Theocharis Stavroulakis, Research Associate at SITraN, who analysed the UK wide data said: “Although recommended by both the American Academy of Neurologists and European Federation of Neurological Societies, there was little evidence for the optimum method and timing for gastrostomy. Decisions in clinical practice are currently largely based on consensus and expert opinion. The aim of our study was to provide evidence for the available treatment options and establish guidelines for best clinical practice to improve care for MND patients.”

Read more


Unravelling the mystery of the most common genetic cause of motor neuron disease

Researchers from the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) have shed light on how mutations in a high risk gene specifically affect motor neurons.

Motor NeuronScientists at the flagship motor neuron disease research centre, based at the University of Sheffield, investigated how specialised nerve cells that control voluntary movements die – something which is key to understanding motor neuron disease (MND).

The study which is now published in PLOS ONE looked at changes that specifically occur in motor neurons in the most common genetic cause of MND linked to mutations in the C9ORF72 gene.

They have found evidence that repetitive sequences found within this gene in people with MND can be toxic and lead to a widespread malfunction of gene expression.

The ribonucleic acid (RNA) copies produced from the C9ORF72 gene in MND patients are faulty, and instead of being used to produce the C9orf72 protein they cause mayhem in the cell.

They accumulate in speckles termed RNA foci and by binding and hording nuclear processing and export factors, they affect the correct expression of other genes.

The researchers conclude that this may not immediately result in disease; however in time compensatory mechanisms might be overwhelmed in vulnerable cells.

SITraN researcher Dr Johnathan Cooper-Knock, a Lady Edith Wolfson Fellow supported by the MND Association and the Medical Research Council (MRC), said:

“We have studied gene expression profiles in isolated motor neurons derived from MND patients and controls, and have identified an up-regulation of genes encoding proteins involved in genetic editing, so-called RNA splicing. Furthermore, despite this up-regulation which may be an attempted compensation, we identified an increased error rate in RNA splicing.”

“Making errors is probably a normal occurrence, but patients with the gene mutation make so many that over time they become toxic. In fact it was shown that patients with the highest error rate had the most severe disease.”

Studying tissue from C9ORF72-MND patients the researchers also found that motor neurons, the prime targets in MND, accumulate a distinct type of RNA produced from the C9ORF72 gene. The faulty gene sequence is copied in both directions, termed ‘sense’ in the direction of the gene and ‘antisense’ referring to the reverse copy.

The study now published in Acta Neuropathologica concludes that antisense foci are present at a significantly higher frequency in motor neurons than in other nerve cells studied. Moreover, the presence of antisense foci, but not sense foci, correlated significantly with nuclear loss of the protein TDP-43 which is the hallmark of MND neurodegeneration.

The scientists also observed antisense foci in the cytoplasm of motor neurons, which is consistent with defective export of the faulty RNA copies from the nucleus, and may be a key step in the production of toxic protein derived from the antisense RNA.

“This intriguing observation suggests that antisense RNA foci may occupy a key position in the cascade of disease pathogenesis in C9ORF72 MND,” added Dr Cooper-Knock.

"We suggest that the key to toxicity might be a propensity to produce antisense foci mediated by cell-specific transcriptional regulation events in motor neurons.”

Professor Dame Pamela Shaw, Director of SITraN and lead of the MND research team, said: “This has implications for translational approaches to C9ORF72 disease and furthermore, interacting RNA-processing factors and transcriptional activators responsible for antisense versus sense transcription might represent novel therapeutic targets.”

More on this new C9ORF72 research can be found on the Alzheimer's Forum:

Additional information

Cooper-Knock J, Higginbottom A, Stopford MJ, Highley JR, Ince PG, Wharton SB, Pickering-Brown S, Kirby J, Hautbergue GM, Shaw PJ. Antisense RNA foci in the motor neurons of C9ORF72-ALS patients are associated with TDP-43 proteinopathy. Acta Neuropathol. 2015 May 6;

Cooper-Knock J, Bury JJ, Heath PR, Wyles M, Higginbottom A, Gelsthorpe C, Highley JR, Hautbergue G, Rattray M, Kirby J, Shaw PJ. C9ORF72 GGGGCC expanded repeats produce splicing dysregulation which correlates with disease severity in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. PLOS ONE, 27 May 2015,

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