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IoO professors win major Wellcome awards

7 March 2017

Wellcome logo…

Huge congratulations to three professors at the Institute of Ophthalmology who have recently been awarded significant grants from Wellcome for their research. These grants represent, both individually and together, a monumental achievement for the IoO; each research project undertaken has the potential to greatly impact and transform the field of brain sciences and beyond.

The Wellcome’s Investigator Award in Science aims to support researchers at all career stages working on ‘important questions’ relevant to the Trust’s scientific remit. They are usually worth from £500,000 – up to £3m.

Professor Christiana Ruhrberg

Professor Christiana Ruhrberg was given the Award for her work ‘Gating endothelial cell behaviours in vascular health and disease.’ Endothelial cells (ECs) form the inner lining of all blood vessels. In healthy vessels, ECs provide smooth surface that facilitates the exchange of gases, molecules and cells between blood and tissues. ECs can also respond to signals from oxygen-starved tissues to expand the vessel network or promote inflammation. Professor Ruhrberg and her research team will investigate how the cell surface molecule NRP1 integrates signals from the environment to alter the expression of genes that balance EC behaviours important for vascular growth, and helps prevent EC dysfunction that is common to inflammatory diseases.

Profossor Ruhrberg said, ‘The knowledge gained will significantly advance our understanding of normal EC behaviour in the healthy body and will likely uncover pathways suitable for therapeutic intervention in vascular diseases.’

Professor Mike Cheetham

Professor Mike Cheetham was awarded for his work on ‘The mechanisms of photoreceptor cell death.’

Inherited changes in the rhodopsin gene are the most common cause of the currently untreatable retinal dystrophy retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Professor Cheetham will study the inherited changes that cause rhodopsin RP in the UK and define why they lead to blindness; he will do this by using model organisms and patient cells to make artificial retinas in the laboratory, and will then test a range of new therapies for the disease. Rhodopsin RP shares some features with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, where nerve cells die, so this research could also go on to be helpful to understand them.

Professor Cheetham said, ‘This award builds upon my recent Wellcome Trust Programme grant and the long term flexible funding will enable us to develop new and exciting models of retinal degeneration to understand the disease and develop new treatments.’

Professor Matteo Carandini

Professor Matteo Carandini and Professor Kenneth Harris (UCL Institute of Neurology) were awarded a joint Investigator Award in Science by Wellcome for the project ‘Organisation of large neuronal populations during behaviour.’

Behaviour arises from the coordinated function of vast numbers of neurons across the brain. However, we lack answers to fundamental questions concerning this coordinated function. Researchers could previously only record from tens or hundreds of neurons, and during single behaviours. New, powerful techniques have now been developed that can be used in the mouse brain: optical recordings of over 10,000 neurons simultaneously; optical and ultrasound measures of mesoscopic activity in multiple brain regions; next-generation electrode arrays that record thousands of neurons across multiple areas; and temporally targeted optogenetic manipulations.

Professors Carandini and Harris will combine these techniques to understand how brain-wide neuronal populations operate in the mouse brain during different behavioural conditions: rest, passive sensory stimulation, locomotion, sensory discrimination, and goal-directed navigation. These data will provide an unprecedented view on the neuronal-level organisation of populations across the brain during behavior.

Professor Carandini was also awarded a Collaborative Award from Wellcome for the project Transforming brain recordings with next-generation probes.’ This is a joint award with fellow Prinicipal Investigators Professor Harris, Professor John O’Keefe (UCL IoN), and postdocs Nicholas Steinmetz, Marius Bauza and Marius Pachitariu.

Prof Carandini said, ‘Thanks to Wellcome and other leading international institutions, we have developed and proved the viability of a new generation of recording probes that will transform electrophysiology. These “Neuropixels” probes transcend past approaches, recording hundreds to thousands of neurons simultaneously. Several key steps are now necessary to maximize the impact of this new technology, enabling its widespread use in the neuroscience community.’

Their team will develop radically new recording equipment and software, provide training, and build a collaborative community of users. To fully exploit the potential of this technology, they will extend it to a larger range of applications: multi-shank probes, wireless recording for freely moving animals, and optrodes for use with optogenetics. They will also obtain ground-truth data to calibrate error rates, and begin the development of a tool to automatically identify brain regions based on electrophysiological characteristics. This project integrates software and hardware engineering, fabrication efforts, neurophysiology tests, and behavioural and anatomical techniques. It thus requires a collaboration between laboratories with different skill sets, and with a nanoelectronics research partner: IMEC.

Prof Carandini added: ‘The results of this collaboration will transform the field of neuroscience.’

Congratulations again to our fantastic IoO researchers and their collaborators.

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