‘We’re bringing together scientists to address neurological disease’

27 Apr 2021

Prof David Henshall. Image: FutureNeuro

FutureNeuro’s Prof David Henshall discusses opportunities in neuroscience research, the impacts of the pandemic, and how he has now swapped his microscope for a laptop.

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David Henshall is a professor in the Department of Physiology and Medical Physics at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI). He is also director of FutureNeuro, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre for chronic and rare neurological diseases, which is based at RCSI in Dublin.

Henshall earned his BSc in pharmacology from the University of Bristol and his PhD in neuropharmacology from the University of Edinburgh. He then worked in the US for many years before coming to RCSI. His research focuses on epilepsy, in particular understanding causes and developing new treatment and diagnostics.

‘A big challenge is staying at the cutting edge of neuroscience research while trying to develop something that could actually be used by a doctor or a patient’

Describe your role and what you do.

FutureNeuro is a new research centre so my main job is to build strong foundations, oversee its day-to-day running and ensure its success by bringing together key multidisciplinary academic and clinical scientists to address the challenges of neurological disease. Our centre, which is hosted by RCSI, is spread across seven academic institutions and embedded in the main neurology hospitals.

At a strategic level, my role includes developing and implementing scientific and business strategy, pursuing funding opportunities by engaging with new Irish and international researchers and commercial partners, and supporting the network of researchers in the centre.

At an operational level, I make sure we hit our targets, represent the centre to our funding body, chair or participate in committees and work with our operations team on the week-to-week business of running a national research centre. It is also important that we work internationally, so I am currently coordinator of EPI-Cluster, a pan-European research and advocacy network funded by European Brain Research Area.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

As a new centre, we have to establish the FutureNeuro ‘brand’ and we continuously strive to publish great research in the top-ranked journals and secure investment from the commercial sector. We also win funding from the European Commission, international funding agencies and charities.

I try and prioritise jobs that help deliver this but of course the job entails all the other things – budgets, personnel, meetings etc. I try and organise the week so I have days when I can focus mainly on the science, such as grant writing and industry projects.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

A big challenge is staying at the cutting edge of neuroscience research while trying to develop or translate your findings into something that could actually be used by a doctor or a patient. How do we take, say, the discovery of a new gene for a disease and develop a drug for it or develop a diagnostic test? This requires many skills besides good science and partnerships with industry. It’s a very difficult process with a high attrition rate.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on productivity due to reducing access to the labs. This affects our research outputs and is especially difficult for early-career researchers who need to build their skills. However, we have prioritised their access to lab facilities.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

I’ve noticed a general increase in public and private sector awareness of RNA-based research due to the Covid vaccines. We do a lot of work on RNA-based medicines and diagnostics so this is helping us attract new partners and projects. There have also been several gene therapies approved in the past year and this is causing a wave of interest that we hope to be part of.

The need to develop remote and teleworking has transformed how healthcare is delivered. This has generated rapid transformation in the clinical care of patients so now we have a lot of e-health related projects that look at how patients want to interact with their neurologists and this is providing a lot of exciting research opportunities.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I studied pharmacology – the science of drugs – which is a great subject if you like biology and chemistry and how it can be applied to health. My interest in neuroscience got stronger during my time as an undergraduate and I ended up picking a PhD that would allow me to develop models of how the brain responds to injury and how we can protect it.

At a conference towards the end of my PhD, I listened to talk from an American neurologist and wrote to him afterwards to ask if he would take me on as postdoctoral researcher. The job exposed me to how to put together complex research projects and to involve patients. It also introduced me to epilepsy, which has been the focus of my work ever since.

After a few years, my wife and I wanted to move closer to ‘home’ and I got lucky to find a job at RCSI. My research developed and expanded over the next few years and then we made a major breakthrough, landing a paper in a big journal. That helped in several ways but, in particular, I got to lead a major European project.

As that came to an end, I began to think about what might take its place. SFI was thinking about funding some new research centres and my head of department suggested we try one on the brain and so here we are.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I’ve missed the importance of a few discoveries we’ve made. Early in my time in the US, we spotted an enzyme switched on in samples that we got from people who had brain surgery for epilepsy. We knew the enzyme controlled inflammation and I wanted to study how neurons died. So, I focused on some of the other results we got. At the time, there was little interest in inflammation and the immune system in the brain. Now, it’s a mighty field of neuroscience whereas what I was interested in has largely dropped off the radar.

So, my advice is don’t be inflexible to new directions if they arise. Of course, you can’t do everything so you have to accept that you’ll miss a few things.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Pick a good project with a clear focus and give them what they need – sufficient budget to get the work done and surround them with people who can help. It’s important they respect you and are driven to succeed. So, lead by example. Work hard and try to always be there for the team.

But really it starts with hiring. Without good people you can’t succeed. Good science isn’t just about raw IQ. You need a whole bunch of other skills to do well including team-working, imagination and tenacity. A sense of humour also helps a lot! 

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Yes. In my field I think we’re gender balanced during the PhD-postdoctoral phase but less so at the top where it’s still male-dominated.

Research is international so I have always had people from all around the world of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Science is great that way.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The best popular science book I ever read is Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne. The topic is my favourite subject outside of what I work on and he weaves together all the evidence in a way that I think even the great Richard Dawkins never quite managed.

Another favourite is Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, and I must give a shout-out to Kevin Mitchell at Trinity College Dublin who wrote Innate on how we are who we are. I’m currently reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, which is all about how funghi rule the world.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

At my stage of career, it’s a laptop not a microscope. That’s sad I think. I know a few professors who can still work in the lab but that stopped being possible for me about 10 years ago.

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