Two leading neurological charities have announced £3 million of funding for Europe's largest brain and tissue bank, based in London.
The new digital brain bank
The funds from the MS Society and Parkinson's UK will enable an all-new digital brain bank, ambitious virtual reality initiative, and new research projects, which could help researchers finally stop multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's for good.
The new digital brain bank, complete with virtual reality interface, will be based at the MS and Parkinson's Tissue Bank at Imperial College London, and will enable scientists from around the world to access brains virtually, making research more effective and efficient.
The charities will continue to fund the existing infrastructure of the tissue bank. Already the largest repository of MS and Parkinson's brain and spinal cord tissue in Europe, it has shared over 100,000 samples with scientists since it opened 20 years ago, leading to more than 700 research projects worldwide.
Combined, MS and Parkinson's affect more than 248,000 people in the UK. Current treatments do not stop, slow or reverse either of the conditions.
What it means for research
MS Society Head of Biomedical Research, Dr Sorrel Bickley, said: "The MS Society Tissue Bank has been vital in improving our understanding of MS and finding treatments for some people with the condition. But our top priority now is finding treatments to slow or stop MS for everyone.
"We can see a future where nobody needs to worry about MS getting worse, but for that to happen we urgently need to find treatments that repair myelin – the protective layer that surrounds our nerves, which is damaged in MS – stop inflammation in the brain, and protect nerves from damage. This funding will allow researchers to operate as effectively as possible, and ultimately help us stop MS faster."
Professor David Dexter, Deputy Director of Research at Parkinson's UK, said: "The Parkinson's UK Brain Bank has played a vital role in advancing our understanding of Parkinson’s so far. Through these new technological initiatives, we will be able to expand the reach and impact of the bank, and enable the best researchers from across the world to study the samples.
"This holds huge potential for speeding up access to better treatments and ultimately a cure for the 148,000 people with Parkinson's in the UK. In addition to providing tissue to researchers worldwide, this project will now also give them access to an immense library of tissue images that can be studied indefinitely. Sharing and storing tissue samples in this way means each individual brain can be used more extensively, benefitting future projects as well as current ones."
The digital brain bank will also incorporate a 3D interactive section that allows people to explore the virtual brain. Virtual visits will enable potential donors in particular to understand the purpose of the tissue bank, how it operates, and what happens to tissue once donated, helping them make fully informed decisions.
Both charities will contribute £1,534,543 each over five years to this and other projects at the tissue bank, including work to help establish how a person's genetic make-up influences how their MS or Parkinson's develops. This involves linking tissue samples to genetic information, so researchers have a fuller picture of the donor behind each sample
David's decision to donate his brain to research
Deborah Burrows' husband David was diagnosed with Parkinson's over 10 years ago. When he passed away he left his brain to the brain bank.
Deborah, who lives in Slough, explains: "Right from the start, David said he wanted to donate his brain to research. I was pleased – this was typical of David as he always wanted to help others. He worked as a car mechanic, and would always (sometimes literally) go that extra mile for people.
"I feel so proud of David for his decision – he is a real inspiration to me. One brain can provide around 250 samples that can be used in many different research projects. So David is still helping people now – by ensuring that research to find better treatments for people with Parkinson’s can continue."
At the tissue bank
Professor Richard Nicholas is the newly appointed Scientific Director of MS Studies at the tissue bank, taking the helm from Professor Richard Reynolds, who personally collected the first brain in 1998.
Professor Nicholas said: "MS is relentless, painful, and disabling, and when the tissue bank first opened in 1998 there were practically no treatments for those affected. Things are very different now and it's a privilege to have the support of organisations like the MS Society and Parkinson's UK, who do everything they can to ensure the work of the scientific community reflects the needs of people living with the neurological conditions.
"The charities recognise that if we're going to revolutionise the way these conditions are treated – and find treatments for everyone – scientists need the right tools. This investment will ensure all researchers have access to high quality brain and spinal cord tissue from people with MS and Parkinson's, and marks an important development in the UK research landscape. We're excited to see where it takes us."