Meet the expert: Professor Simon Mead
We caught up with Professor Mead to ask him about his research, what excites him most about his work and what advice he would give his younger self.
What attracted you to the area of prion diseases and why is it important?
I first heard about prions as an undergraduate, when I was intrigued by the idea of an unconventional infectious agent that resisted physical and chemical destruction. As a child I was always curious about how things work, and pulled things apart to investigate (never being able to reassemble!) In 1990, even the concept of a prion being solely or predominantly made from host protein was controversial. Later, when studying for a PhD during the BSE/variant CJD epidemic, I learned how science can inform real-world problems and help the country respond to a crisis. Now we are in different situation of course, there are changed public health concerns, what motivates me is that we are getting close to a complete explanation of how a protein can transform into an infectious agent. I am convinced if we answer this basic question we will be able to develop treatments for prion diseases and the learning will be relevant to the “prion-like” common neurodegenerative disorders.
Can you tell us about your current research?
I’m a neurologist and a scientist so my research is delightfully varied. At one end of a spectrum we work on the best way to care for people dying of prion diseases, and how to help people living with the risk of prion disease later in life. Working directly with patients and their families is particularly rewarding as you see the immediate impact. At the other end of a spectrum at the MRC Prion Unit at UCL we use genomic technologies to find risk factors for sporadic human prion diseases and other dementias, and investigate mechanisms to make a case for new therapeutic targets.
What aspect of your work most excites you and why?
In 2018 and 2019 I prescribed the first designed experimental therapeutic for a patient with sporadic CJD, a monoclonal antibody therapy developed at UCL’s Institute of Prion Diseases with the support of a patient-led charity, the CureCJD Campaign. The potential to develop a new treatment for a rapid and incurable disease will I am sure remain the main focus of my career. This work always gets the top priority.
What would you say to someone who is considering whether to study neurodegenerative disease at UCL?
Go for it! It’s a fantastically inspiring place to work, friendly and diverse with highly motivated teams and leaders. For me, studying neurodegenerative diseases at UCL helped me totally commit to a direction for my career, and I expect there’s a good chance it will for you too.
What’s the best advice you would give your younger self?
Stop worrying about the past and the distant future. Enjoy the focus on what you are doing right now and the connection with the good people around you.