Fight to cure Huntington’s disease using CRISPR began with a painting

11 Jul 2018

Eoin Murphy backstage at Inspirefest 2018. Image: Paul Condron

NUI Galway’s Eoin Murphy tells us how a trip to Mexico gave him a sign that sent him down the road to using CRISPR to treat Huntington’s disease.

Fresh off his success at Researchfest held at Inspirefest 2018, NUI Galway’s Eoin Murphy continues to work on finding a way to finally treat Huntington’s disease using the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

For those unfamiliar, Huntington’s disease is an inherited neurodegenerative condition that causes serious cognitive and movement defects in the human brain. Usually starting in middle age, it can quickly see people lose control of their mental capacity and body movement.

Earlier in his academic career, Murphy studied biotechnology at NUI Galway before going on to complete a research master’s in biochemistry, investigating combinational therapy for acute myeloid leukaemia.

He then went on to teaching in Ireland, England and Canada for a period of eight years, having completed a postgraduate diploma in education.

Murphy returned to the Centre for Chromosome Biology (CCB) in NUI Galway after he was awarded a Hardiman Scholarship.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

While studying for my undergraduate degree, I developed an interest in human migration and genetic diseases. I maintained that interest through reading, travel and visiting museums around the world.

Then, while travelling Central America in 2013, I visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In the entrance to one of the large hallways, there is a painting depicting the first human migration into North America. This painting sparked something inside me again, and led me to begin looking at ways of moving back towards research.

The idea of being able to connect the migration of people, genetics, and the implications this has had on populations both locally and worldwide really excited me. The possibility that, as a researcher, I could answer a question that has yet to be answered inspired me to move back into research.

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

I am currently carrying out research under the supervision of Prof Bob Lahue whose research lab is situated in the Biosciences Research Building in NUI Galway, part of the CCB.

Dr Greg Williams is the postdoctoral researcher within the group and the lab’s research interests include DNA mismatch repair and trinucleotide repeat instability.

Huntington’s disease is an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that is caused by a DNA mutation called a trinucleotide repeat (TNR) expansion.

Irish people are between two to three times more likely to develop Huntington’s disease than anywhere else in the developed world. I found this striking but, in addition, it has been suggested that its occurrence in other populations worldwide may be linked to the migration of individuals.

My project would give me the opportunity to use CRISPR to investigate the role of genetic modifiers on mutation risk in Huntington’s disease.

With the increased understanding of the genetic basis of the disease, we are starting to identify potential therapeutic targets. Therefore, the research is quite current and, due to the lab’s background, we are perfectly situated to investigate new targets as they emerge.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I believe the research is important because of the devastating effect Huntington’s disease has on the lives of sufferers both within Ireland and worldwide.

Due to the nature of the disease, children of those who carry it have a 50pc chance of inheritance.

In addition to trying to identify therapeutic targets for Huntington’s disease, the understanding that may come from this research could have implications for other genetic diseases.

The Human Genome Project has given us the potential to create huge amounts of data, and we are now moving to a point where the technology, such as CRISPR, may allow us to use this data to answer questions that we could not before.

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

I believe that one of the biggest challenges I face as a researcher is maintaining my focus on my core research question.

In a time where technology is advancing so rapidly and new discoveries are being made so frequently, it can be tempting to follow multiple leads. However, I believe that quality, focused research when completed adds knowledge to the field and the potential for others to advance.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think one misconception is that scientists in the area of genetic editing are not concerned with the ethical implications of their work. I don’t believe this is true – in fact, I think most scientists are probably more concerned with the ethics of what they are doing than anyone else. Perhaps if there were more platforms created for communication between the public and researchers, it would dispel this notion.

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

I would like to see more research investment in the area of genetic diseases outside of the developed world. I understand that the funding comes from the developed countries and, as a result, we are drawn towards researching questions that will benefit us the most. However, I believe that by widening the research into genetic diseases in populations from other areas of the globe, it may allow us to answer questions about ourselves.

I believe that the answers are in our DNA, and technologies such as CRISPR are now allowing us to ask the right questions.

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