I went to see Dr. Denise Fitzgerald in Queens University Belfast yesterday. It took me about 2 hours to drive up the road from Dublin. Long enough, long roads, by myself. We go quickly alone. I arrived with a few minutes to spare, as was ordained. Mike Hardy (whom some of you may have met in Belfast) had set up the meeting so we could get a better idea of where the solutions to MS are. Short answer is we’re doing well.
In your body, you have the immune system that lives in your bloodstream, and another immune system that lives in your central nervous system, floating about your CNS. I suppose you could play semantics with this. Point is, there’s a lot of moving parts and biochemistry going on. How everything interacts with everything else is a pretty big story. In MS then, because some one of the wheels has fallen off, things get very interesting (aka complicated) very fast.
The tour of the labs lasted about an hour and a bit. Jill who coordinates the show explained to myself and Mike how things worked. There’s a good squad of PhD researchers and Post Docs there trying to figure out the problem I described earlier, namely “how does every part [of the immune system] work with everything else?”. It’s essentially a massively parallel comparison problem, except you have to compare each interaction with every other interaction, so you can probably imagine how fast the problem grows.
Being in a group of people who know what titration is, how nostoc ellipsosporum works and how different supplements affect different people is a wonderful thing. Just as sessions was where all the people who spoke MS were, QuB is where all the scientists are. From what I’ve seen, I think it’s safe to say we’re all in good hands.
If we think of a simple example of a 3 scoop ice cream cone, we might imagine there’s chocolate, strawberry and vanilla in there (C, S, V). So you get flavour combinations. How many? Well, in practise this gets a bit more interesting. Because you can try chocolate with vanilla, or vanilla with chocolate, but you’re not sure if those 2 combinations produce the same result either way or if they’re different depending on what you start with.
It’s a bit like that with the immune system. But you get chains of interactions between a large (not entirely known) number of components in a not entirely known length of sequences. DNA isn’t so bad because you’ve only got 4 base pairs to worry about. So now maybe you understand the scale of the problem. That’s why it’s taking so long to get us a solution to MS. Cure MS is easy to write. Actually doing it though is a bit more involved.
I got a lot out of the tour. My CPD in pharmacology really helped. Lab tech has come on in the past 10 years. ELISA machines, PCR and chromatography are a lot fancier than they used to be. There are now even machines that can sort individual cells by type. This is a big deal. In the days of yore, sorting through 96 different experimental samples by hand to differentiate the contents was a long laborious task. Thankfully nowadays things are being automated.
I was keen to see a bit of bioinformatics in action. Animal study models will be necessary until we can completely simulate the entire functionality of the human brain (after it is completely understood) in a computer model. Yep, this is currently beyond us. The mice are loved. They are pets to everyone working in the lab. Their sacrifice is solemn and dignified in a way I haven’t experienced before. All are thanked and remembered, for they would lessen our suffering. Something to think about next time you get treatment.
Every researcher I met has a collaborator somewhere in Europe or further afield. The research teams in QuB are in frequent contact with other research teams around the world, such as Cambridge, Oxford and the various research institutes in North America. I walked out feeling inspired. I’m thrilled there’s so much good work going on. I reminded the research team (20 odd people at the time we we visiting and that wasn’t everyone) that they’re doing good things. They endure long days, late nights and miss their families for our sakes.
From us, we say thank you.
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