How a friend’s MS diagnosis helped spur a researcher to develop new therapies

17 Jun 2020

Conor Duffy of RCSI. Image: FameLab

Conor Duffy of RCSI is working to develop a ‘switch’ that could help the body repair the damage caused by multiple sclerosis.

Having previously studied neuroscience at University College Dublin, Conor Duffy is now a PhD student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), where he is the resident neuroscientist in Dr Claire McCoy’s immunology research group. His work focuses on multiple sclerosis (MS) and how manipulating the expression of genes could be a promising avenue for new treatments.

He has presented his work at several conferences including the Irish Society for Immunology Annual Meeting, the Neuroscience Ireland Young Neuroscientists Symposium and the Northern Ireland Multiple Sclerosis Research Network Symposium in Queen’s University Belfast.

Earlier this year, he was a participant in the finals of the FameLab Ireland science communication competition. Outside of the lab, Duffy has a deep appreciation for bees and also loves to run.

‘The difference between what we can do for someone diagnosed today, versus someone a decade or two ago, is often immense’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was always very curious about the natural world from a very young age and took particular fascination with the biological sciences all through my school years. What really drew me to research, though, was learning about the immense burden of neurological disorders on people’s lives, and how much scope there was for developing new treatments to help them.

Two things clicked that made my decision to work on multiple sclerosis, specifically. Firstly, I was absolutely fascinated by the interaction between the immune and nervous systems, and that entire field of neuroimmunology that was emerging during my undergrad.

But secondly, it was when a friend of mine told me that she had MS, having been diagnosed as a teenager. That really put things into perspective for me and I decided to pursue my love of the biological sciences in a way that could help people at the same time.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

We’re an immunology research group with a particular focus on how manipulating small genetic molecules – microRNAs – can influence the activity of immune cells, in particular macrophages. We know that certain microRNAs are of critical importance in activating macrophages to adopt an inflammatory state that causes damage in MS.

Our hypothesis is that by targeting microRNAs with treatments, we could switch these immune cells towards an anti-inflammatory mode that could actually help repair the damage done in MS. My role in this project is to explore how these microRNAs interact with the repair mechanisms the central nervous system has that stop working properly in patients with progressive MS.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I think my research is important because while a lot of great work has been done in developing treatments to manage MS, we’re still struggling with repairing the damage that is done in the central nervous system that leads patients to suffer long-term disability.

Figuring out ways to switch immune cells away from causing damage and towards repair mechanisms seems like a very promising approach to solving this difficulty, and I hope my research can help us solve this problem and help the many patients who suffer with this horrible disease.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

My research would mostly be useful in developing therapeutic strategies to treat MS, so the main application is in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors.

Developing new approaches to solve long-standing problems in human disease is an important part of making progress against these issues, and I hope my research will ultimately be part of a novel treatment against MS.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Staying on top of all of the relevant research from other groups is essential to informing your own work and being a good scientist. In both neuroimmunology and microRNA research more broadly, new findings are coming out at a fairly high pace. So finding time to sit down and go through them can be a challenge when you’re managing a full-time research project at the same time!

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

With research into new treatments for existing diseases, something you occasionally hear is frustration from the public that a ‘cure’ hasn’t been found after many years of work. This is completely understandable given the human suffering the diseases we work on cause.

But I think it fails to capture just how much progress has been made in managing so many illnesses through research. Personally, I like to take a long view when responding to these concerns.

The difference between what we can do for someone diagnosed today, versus someone a decade or two ago, is often immense. I think getting this progress across is critical to maintain public support for biomedical research.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I’m very interested in developments being made in personalised medicine – tailoring treatments to the individual patient based on their genetic profile and particular circumstances. I’ve read papers detailing therapeutics designed towards treating even a single patient, and I really hope this personalised approach takes off in the coming years.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.