Rutherford Discovery to fund Motor Neurone Disease research

21 September 2015
Emma Scotter
Dr Emma Scotter

University of Auckland researcher, Dr Emma Scotter has been awarded one of the 12 Royal Society Rutherford Discovery Fellowships for 2015.

Seven of the 12 prestigious fellowships that are awarded to New Zealand’s most talented early to mid-career researchers were awarded to UOA researchers.

Two of these were awarded within the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences - Dr Scotter works with the Department of Pharmacology and the Centre for Brain Research.

Another Rutherford Discovery Fellowship was awarded to Dr Troy Merry, (at present based in Zurich) within the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology.

The Fellowships foster the development of future research leaders by providing funding of up to $800,000 each over five years to cover salary and research costs. The funding is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

“This initiative seeks to attract, retain and grow New Zealand’s up-and-coming talent by enabling promising researchers to establish a track record for future research leadership,” said Minister Steven Joyce when he announced the fellowships yesterday.

Dr Scotter’s research programme is entitled: “The theory of (not quite) everything: The neglected role of the blood-brain-barrier in motor neuron disease.”

Dr Scotter is a cell biologist who seeks to understand the mechanisms involved in degenerative brain diseases. She obtained her PhD from the University of Auckland, specialising in Huntington’s Disease.

In 2010 she was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to work at King’s College London, where she shifted her focus to Motor Neurone Disease. She discovered that proteins which forms clumps in patient brain cells can be disposed of by cells under certain conditions, meaning that drugs that activate these disposal processes might be of therapeutic benefit.

Emma returned to Auckland in 2014 as an Aotearoa Fellow at the Centre for Brain Research, where she continues to examine protein waste disposal in Motor Neurone Disease.

Dr Scotter says, “I look forward to this fantastic opportunity to grow a program of MND research in New Zealand which brings together existing national expertise, and recruits international expertise. “

“I’m fortunate to work closely with Professors Mike Dragunow and Richard Faull, directors of the CBR Human Biobank and the Centre for Brain Research, respectively,” she says. “Together with motivated students, junior postdoctoral fellows and clinical neurologists.

“Together with this “dream team” and the generous funding of a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, I am excited about the prospect of identifying causes and potential treatments for Motor Neurone Disease,” says Dr Scotter.

Emma works closely with the Human Brain Bank and Human Biobank, clinical neurologists, and Motor Neurone Disease care groups to undertake studies using cells and tissue from patient donors and to communicate novel findings to the patient community.

Director of the University’s Centre for Brain Research, Distinguished Professor Richard Faull, says “Warmest congratulations to Dr Emma Scotter from everyone in the Centre for Brain Research on being awarded one of the most prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowships from the Royal Society of New Zealand.”

“Emma was awarded the prestigious 2013 CBR Aotearoa Postdoctoral Research Fellowship which attracted her back to our University from Professor Shaw’s world leading research laboratory at Kings’ College, London,” he says. “Over the last two years she has transformed our research on motor neurone disease(MND) in Professor Mike Dragunow’s laboratory. “

“Emma is a wonderful role model for all young emerging researchers. She has not only applied innovative and imaginative ideas that have driven and developed our MND research to achieve world class status, but she has also demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities in the CBR and most importantly has forged strong community links with the New Zealand Motor Neuron Disease Association,” says Professor Faull.

Awareness of motor neurone disease (MND) is growing, following the hugely successful ice-bucket challenge and the release of the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” in 2014.

“But we are poised on a precipice; increased awareness and research funding must yet be translated into understanding of disease mechanisms before patients can benefit from better treatments,” says Dr Scotter. “Indeed, the typical sufferer of MND will die from the disease within three years, meaning that Hawking represents the exception, rather than the rule.”

MND is a fatal and incurable movement disorder affecting 1 in 15,000 New Zealanders. In this disease, motor neurons within the brain and spinal cord degenerate, causing progressive loss of movement function.

Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to motor neuron death in MND. But do these factors also affect other types of brain cells? Dr Scotter has exciting new evidence to suggest that they do.

By exploring the role of non-neuronal cell types such as pericytes, Dr Scotter’s research group hopes to better understand why MND develops and how it can best be treated.

And perhaps one day soon they will have their “Theory of Everything” regarding this devastating disease.

Dr Troy Merry was awarded his Rutherford Discovery Fellowship for a research programme entitled: “Beta-catenin facilitates skeletal muscle glucose transport and pancreatic beta-cell insulin secretion.”

Dr Troy Merry completed a Bachelor of Physical Education with honours at the University of Otago before undertaking his PhD in exercise metabolism at the University of Melbourne, for which he received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in a PhD thesis.

He then continued his research into the role of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in regulating metabolism and glucose homeostasis during post-doctoral research positions at the Monash University, Australia, and the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) Zurich, Switzerland where he was supported by a fellowship from the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes.

Dr Merry’s research focuses on understanding molecular mechanisms underpinning the development of metabolic disease and type 2 diabetes, and how exercise can prevent the development of these diseases.

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