MSD and the Crick unite to tackle motor neurone disease

Rickie Patani

Scientists at global biopharmaceutical company MSD and the Crick have started a unique new collaboration to understand the causes of motor neurone disease and identify potential targets for future treatments, co-funded by MSD and the Medical Research Council.

This is the first project under a new five-year collaboration agreement, which will see Crick and MSD scientists working together at the Crick to better understand difficult-to-treat diseases. Motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a devastating disease and there are no treatments that can stop or reverse it.

The project will be led by Dr Rickie Patani, a research group leader at the Crick and UCL and consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. 

"In the clinic, it's devastating when I have to tell a patient they have motor neurone disease," says Rickie. "Often, the patient first walks in with mild weakness in a limb and then I see the disease progressing relentlessly with every visit. Within a year or two, they might be in a wheelchair and require breathing support. This disease destroys families, and I feel profoundly guilty that we still have no effective treatments to offer.

"Through fundamental research, we want to understand the basic biology underpinning the disease. Just knowing what's happening can offer some comfort to patients, even when there aren't treatments around the corner. I am excited to start our new collaboration with MSD, which we hope will give us a comprehensive understanding of the earliest events that cause motor neurone disease. This is a unique science-led partnership, driven by our shared commitment to helping patients in the long term."

This collaboration is a great example of the opportunities that can arise from a thriving life science community when doors and minds are open.
Fiona Marshall, MSD

The new collaboration will build on previous work from Rickie’s group, which identified key mechanisms that can kill motor neurons in patients. By studying human motor neurons derived from patients' skin cells, the team hope to build scientific understanding that may underpin new treatments in the years to come.

Fiona Marshall, Vice President, Head of Neuroscience Discovery and Head of Discovery Science at MSD UK said: “We are delighted to be working with Rickie and his colleagues at the Crick and I am hopeful that this collaboration could produce ground-breaking research which will ultimately change how we treat a broad spectrum of diseases in the future. This collaboration is a great example of the opportunities that can arise from a thriving life science community when doors and minds are open.”

The multi-disciplinary project crosses traditional boundaries between clinical, academic and industry research, with Rickie as a practising neurologist working alongside Crick, UCL and MSD scientists. The unique approach is possible thanks to matched funding from the Medical Research Council, one of the Crick's founding partners.

Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council said: “When outstanding scientists in industry and academia work together it creates a great opportunity to accelerate discoveries that can improve human health. We are pleased to support this novel collaboration between the Francis Crick Institute and MSD.”

This latest agreement builds on MSD’s commitment to establish a research presence in London, which will enable stronger collaboration with UK and European research organisations. Earlier in the year, a group of MSD researchers started working at the Crick, ahead of their move to a new London site.

Veronique Birault, Director of Translation at the Crick, said: “We are very excited that MSD are back undertaking research in the UK, and will be working with us on discovery science. There is so much we don’t know about neurodegeneration, and working together from such an early stage will help us to build knowledge and understanding from the ground up. By combining our expertise, we hope to truly advance the field and potentially offer hope for future generations.”

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