The Neuro is proud to announce the Early Drug Discovery Unit (EDDU)’s new director is Tom Durcan. He will lead the EDDU team as it develops human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to explore new targets for neurological disease treatments.
We spoke to Durcan about his new position, the role of stem cells in disease research and some exciting new developments at the EDDU.
How does it feel to be the EDDU’s new director?
It’s quite the honour. I first joined The Neuro 15 years ago, working in the lab of Dr. Edward Fon, and having helped him launch the EDDU over six years ago with just three people including us both, its surreal to think I get to now lead this team of over 40 talented researchers and trainees.
Dr. Fon saw the need for a group like the EDDU to be set up at The Neuro, working with stem cells while making our data, methods, and resources accessible to all through Open science. The pandemic has proven to be challenging but having such a great team has made things manageable. Somehow, we achieved quite a lot in often the most trying of circumstances and I think that is something I’m most proud of. We did some of best work during this time.
Stepping into the director role after Dr. Fon is a challenge, but I like a challenge. It’s my Irish nature. Leading the EDDU is one of the biggest I have accepted but I’m happy and excited to be taking on this responsibility, and I’m doing it with the support of a great team around me along with everyone at The Neuro. I have a vision of what I’d like to see us do and all I will say is stay tuned. We have a number of exciting initiatives and partnerships coming down the pipeline and I look forward to the future growth and expansion of The Neuro’s EDDU over the next decade.
How would you describe the EDDU to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?
In establishing the EDDU, we believed that disorders of the brain could be made treatable if we worked with more relevant human models. During my early research career, I would work with cancer cells to study Parkinson’s disease, and it always baffled me why we couldn’t work with human neurons: the cells affected in the disease.
This is where induced pluripotent stem cells come in, or iPSCs for short. They are at the core of everything we do. We can reprogram the blood cells of patient volunteers at The Neuro into stem cells, or iPSCs. We can then use IPSCs to generate any type of human brain cell with which we want to work.
iPSCs present unprecedented opportunities to understand why diseases like Parkinson’s disease, ALS and neurodevelopmental disorders arise. With these tools at our disposal, the EDDU is focused on better understanding these disorders and working with partners to accelerate discovery of therapies for the patients.
Brain disorders are one of the most complex and challenging problems of our time, which means we have to collaborate and be open in what we do if we want to succeed. Open Science is a core tenet of how we operate and from our protocols, to cell-lines and assays, we try to make everything we do as accessible to interested users and partners everywhere so they can work alongside us, as two or more hands is always better than one.
What’s new and exciting on the horizon?
We have a lot of cool and exciting stuff coming up in 2022. We’re kickstarting the year with the second iteration of our virtual iPSC training workshop. When the pandemic hit, we could no longer train people in person, so we pivoted, building the video recording infrastructure in the lab to record how the different team members work with cells so we could make our own video protocols. This meant we could continue our stem cell training workshop, now in its fifth year. Moreover, it led us to start recording many of our protocols that over the course of 2022 will be going online and made freely accessible. These will span multiple languages thanks to the generous support of the Neuro’s TOSI Grassroots initiative, ensuring we make all our methods as widely available to everyone who might need them.
Another area we’re excited about is a collaborative project with Drs. Fon and Gan-Or. Over 80 genes have been associated with Parkinson’s disease, yet only five or six are widely studied, with the remaining 75 neglected, in what we refer to the “dark genome”. We believe these genes hold great value to understanding why the disease develops and have started generating a number of gene knockouts to better assess what happens if specific genes are absent. This is part of a pilot project funded by the Michael J Fox foundation, that we hope to expand from a few genes to all genes over the next few years.
These are just two initiatives we have ongoing, but with new collaborations, technologies and approaches we have some exciting stuff lined up over the next year that I look forward to sharing as the year progresses.