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5 Questions on Neuroscience Research

17 Aug 2016
Dr Shane Hegarty: "Our research aims to understand the molecular signals that control the growth and survival of dopaminergic neurons."

Dr Shane Hegarty talks about his research at UCC, which aims to develop new therapies for Parkinson’s disease, and the advice he would give to students considering a career in science. 

Q. What is your research here in UCC about?

A. For the past few years, I have worked in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience under the supervision of Dr Gerard O’Keeffe and Professor Aideen Sullivan. Our research aims to develop new therapies for Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is second only to Alzheimer’s in its worldwide prevalence and it affects over 8000 people in Ireland. There is currently no cure. In Parkinson’s, there is a progressive loss of a type of brain cell (known as a ‘dopaminergic neuron’) that controls our voluntary movement, with an array of other non-motor and cognitive issues also involved. This means that people with Parkinson’s (PwPs) cannot move in the way that they want, and cannot stop unwanted movements. Current treatments provide temporary relief from the movement symptoms, such as the ‘shakes’, stiffness, slow movement, and an unstable posture. However, the effects of these drugs wear off over time, lead to disabling side effects, and they do not alter the progression of Parkinson’s. The fact that the debilitating motor symptoms result from the loss of a single population of brain cells provides the promising possibility that a cure may reside in finding a way to protect, restore or even replace these as dopaminergic neurons. Therefore, our research aims to understand the molecular signals that control the growth and survival of dopaminergic neurons. We are also working on translating this information to help develop new therapies for Parkinson’s.

Q. Why did you choose this area of research?

A. The most important decision which led me to this area of research was choosing the Neuroscience BSc. After entering the UCC CK402 course with the intention of studying Chemistry, I developed a keen interest in Biology, particularly Cell Biology, Genetics and Human Development. During a J1 summer visa in America I read ‘My Stroke of Insight’, an inspirational story about a Neuroscientist who experiences and recovers from a stroke. Her description of the brain and its function completely fascinated me, and ignited my deep curiosity about the brain. I subsequently chose the Neuroscience degree which captivated my interest and encouraged me to learn about a wide range of Neuroscience topics. I was particularly enthusiastic about Developmental Neurobiology and Neurodegenerative Disorders, and I thus identified Professor Aideen Sullivan and Dr Gerard O’Keeffe as researchers who work in both these areas. Together we devised a PhD project which combined research into Parkinson’s disease and brain development, and we were subsequently awarded an Irish Research Council (IRC) Postgraduate Scholarship to undertake this research. Since then, we have successfully identified neurotrophic factor signals that promote the survival and growth of dopaminergic neurons during brain development, and which have potential as disease-modifying therapies for Parkinson’s.

Q. What projects are you currently working on?

A. During my PhD research in UCC, we identified a new transcription factor (a signal that turns on/off a select number of genes to change a cell’s behaviour), called ‘Sip1’, which is important for the growth of dopaminergic neurons. To build on this research, I was awarded Post-Doctoral Fellowships by the IRC and National University of Ireland to continue our research in UCC. Since then we have determined how this transcription factor operates to control dopaminergic neuron growth, and have uncovered evidence of its dysfunction in Parkinson’s. More recently, this research project took me to the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, Netherlands to further our understanding of Sip1 in the development of dopaminergic neurons, which was made possible by the Royal Irish Academy Charlemont Grant. In addition to this, we are investigating the therapeutic potential of how this pathway may be targeted by ‘Epigenetic Regulators’, drugs which can specifically alter the activity of many genes, in Parkinson’s disease.

Q. Which aspect of your research are you most proud of?

A. To be honest, I am very proud of everything we have achieved in our UCC research since I began in 2010. We have had many successes in this time, including a number of publications, grants, awards etc., which have been the product of hard work and perseverance in times of failure. These achievements would not have been possible without the constant support and guidance of my supervisors Dr. Gerard O’Keeffe and Professor Aideen Sullivan. I am also extremely grateful to UCC for teaching me how to become a Neuroscience researcher, in particular all those in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, and Dr. Barry Boland in the Department of Pharmacology. If I had to choose one aspect of our UCC research that I am most proud of, I would have to pick our ‘BRAINTALK’ project which was supported by the IRC New Foundations Award. This ongoing project aims to create an active and interconnected Parkinson’s community in Ireland, which together strives to improve the management and research outcomes for this disease. In 2015, we held the ‘Parkinson’s Community’ meeting, the ‘Living with Parkinson’s’ exhibition, and the ‘Exploring Parkinson’s with Art’ workshop, which received outstanding feedback, had overwhelming interest that lead to oversubscription, and were recognised and publicised by the IRC and a number of national and international Parkinson’s-related organisations, such as the Michael J Fox Foundation. It has given me great pride to facilitate researchers, patients, clinicians and the public to exchange and disseminate knowledge, and to outline why research is beneficial to society as a whole. I believe this project has had the greatest direct benefit to PwPs to date, while our research continues to strive towards new therapies.

Q. What advice would you give to a student considering a career in science?

A. The most important advice I would give to a student considering a career in science is to find an area of science which really engages your interest. By identifying a topic that fascinates you, you will be able to enthusiastically engage with and learn about this area. Such an interest will make it easier for you to master this topic, and this knowledge will help you to achieve academic success and serve as the basis for your career in science. If your scientific curiosity leads you to identify and question the various unknowns in your field of interest, then a career in research is suited to you. A strong desire to discover/answer the unknown is essential to feed ones enthusiasm for research. Both enthusiasm and perseverance are required to effectively research, which are usually built on an insatiable interest in your scientific topic. You must be prepared to deal with failure, while remaining open, but critical, to various theories, explanations and outcomes, as well as other scientific fields. While research can be an uncertain landscape for a career, because you are working with the unknown, it is hugely rewarding. 

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