Understanding cell death could lead to breakthrough in motor neurone disease

01 October 2010, Immune system

Senior Malaghan Institute scientist Dr Melanie McConnell has built an entire research programme around finding ways to identify and kill cancer stem cells - a rare population of cells found within tumours that are thought to be the main cause of relapse and metastasis. Ironically, this research has led to an innovative spin-off programme focused on keeping cells alive.

Cancer stem cells have the unique ability to renew themselves and use an extensive network of survival mechanisms to evade chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. As her understanding of these survival pathways grew, Dr McConnell realised that cancer stem cells might just hold the secret to extending the life of cells that die prematurely, such as in motor neurone disease.

Patients with motor neurone disease suffer increasing weakness of the muscles, due to the death of the neurons that feed into them and there is currently very little that can be done to stop this. Dr McConnell with support from the estates of Ellen, Sinclair, Barbara and Alison Wallace, hopes to develop approaches that actually prolong the survival of neurons - a creative flip-side to her usual role of trying to kill cancer stem cells.