Exploring new treatments to halt the progression of MS

10 May 2019

Dr Claire McCoy. Image: RCSI

Dr Claire McCoy is hoping to discover novel therapeutics for multiple sclerosis by understanding how RNA molecules contribute to its development.

The incidence and prevalence of multiple sclerosis (MS), an inflammatory neurological disease, is reportedly increasing worldwide. Ireland, in particular, is noted as having a high incidence.

On 30 May, the global community of those affected by MS will mark World MS Day, raising awareness of this life-impacting condition that often has invisible symptoms.

In Ireland, researchers work closely with MS Ireland, patients and clinicians, creating an MS Research Network that helps to raise funding for more research as well as public engagement. One such scientist is Dr Claire McCoy, leader of the McCoy Lab, the microRNA Inflammation Research Group at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).

McCoy’s research team is focused on understanding how the immune system and small molecules such as microRNAs contribute to the development of MS, with the ultimate aim to design novel therapeutics to halt disease progression.

“Our specific focus is aimed at trying to understand how small RNA molecules such as microRNAs can influence immune cell function and contribute to disease progression in multiple sclerosis,” she explained. “There is a particular pattern of microRNAs that are dysregulated in patients with MS, so the aim is to use this information to generate more sensitive methods for the detection of MS, as well as understand how we can manipulate them as a novel therapeutic approach for MS.”

MicroRNA therapeutics is a rapidly growing field of research with exciting prospects. The therapeutic potential has already secured large investments from the pharmaceutical industry.

“Since their initial discovery in early 2000, the closest microRNA therapeutic to the market is Miravirsen by Roche, which is currently in phase II clinical trials for hepatitis C infection. Our work will help to discover novel microRNAs that could hold equal potential for diseases such as MS.”

‘Funding is critical for progress’

McCoy’s academic career began with biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin followed by a PhD in molecular biology at the University of Dundee, then back to Trinity to do postdoctoral research with Prof Luke O’Neill. “I was keen to translate what I had learnt to a more clinically relevant system,” she said.

Her studies farther afield were not over yet, though. A Marie Curie Mobility Fellowship offered the opportunity to travel to Monash University in Australia, leading to a “fruitful collaboration” with Prof Claude Bernard, an expert in regenerative medicine who specifically focused on MS.

It has now been three years since McCoy returned to Ireland as lecturer in immunology at the RCSI, where she started her own independent research group. In her time, she has published more than 21 highly cited and seminal publications, and received a number of major national and international awards, including a Future Research Leader Award from Science Foundation Ireland that represented a share of €7m in research funding.

“Funding allows you to turn your ideas into reality – without this, our work is impossible,” said McCoy. “Thus, funding is absolutely critical for progress. Succeeding is about having many dots lined up in a row; these include having the best team in place for the job, having the solid support of an institute, trusting your ideas and having the determination to keep going.”

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic