Scientist focus – Stuart Pickering-Brown
During the Alzheimer’s Show in Trafford, I caught up with Manchester-based dementia geneticist Stuart Pickering-Brown, to find out more about his research and what makes him tick, both inside and outside the lab.
Name and job title:
Stuart Pickering-Brown, Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Manchester
What was your early career path to being a researcher?
I’ve spent most of career in Manchester, where I was awarded my PhD. Since then I’ve moved around a bit, taking a lectureship at King’s College London and then becoming an Assistant Professor at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Then I returned to Manchester where I completed a couple of research Fellowships that led onto my current role as Professor of Neurogenetics. I have concentrated on a rare form of dementia, called frontotemporal dementia (FTD) for my entire career.
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on the genetics and biology behind FTD. Recently, I have been investigating the relationship between FTD and motor neurone disease (known as ALS in America). We now know that FTD and motor neurone disease are part of the same disease spectrum and with some of the same genetic causes. However, while in FTD the genetic changes affect the part of the brain involved in personality and communication, in motor neuron disease they affect the part of the brain and spinal cord involved in controlling movement.
Why is this area of research important?
Around 40% of people with FTD have a family history of the disease, meaning that genetics has an important role in the development of the disease. Understanding the genetics and causes of the disease allows us to develop effective ways to model the disease in the laboratory. This will help us to understand what leads to neurodegeneration. By using our research to understand the biological mechanisms behind FTD, the hope is that these will lead to the discovery of targets for the development of new treatments for the disease.
How are you involved with the work of Alzheimer’s Research UK?
I have been a member of their Scientific Advisory Board since 2009, and am about to take over as Chair. I also attend their conference – I’m still in trouble for using the wrong logo at the conference in Oxford!
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I have been involved in every major gene discovery that has been made for FTD, including tau and C9orf72. I’d say my ultimate highlight was realising that C9orf72 was a common cause of FTD and motor neurone disease. This reignited interest in the study of frontotemporal dementia and gave us a greater understanding of how changes to the same gene can affect people in different ways.
What advice would you give new scientists embarking on a career in dementia research?
You need to be dedicated and bloody-minded. However, don’t spend your time worrying about your competition; focus on your own experiments.
What do you think is the most promising area of dementia research at the moment?
Recently there have been unbelievable developments in technology, allowing us to do experiments that we could never do before, such as the huge genetic studies which have allowed us to identify most of the FTD-related genes. The development of the reprogrammable stem cells which won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, just blows me away! Being able to take cells from a patient and re-programme them into any cell you require is amazing!
If you had to convince someone about the importance of dementia research in one line, what would you say?
Dementia is an epidemic – if we don’t develop effective treatments and cures for it, we will bankrupt the NHS.
What do you like most about the University and environment that you work in?
Frontotemporal dementia was rediscovered in Manchester in the 1990’s, and it has the best collection of samples in the world. The Manchester-Lund criterion is still used for diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia. Manchester is a dynamic environment with the full spectrum of research, from genes up to psychology, clinical neurology and social care.
What do you do in your spare time/ outside the lab?I’m married with two children, but neither of my children is particularly interested in being scientists, they prefer playing Minecraft! However, my daughter has the makings of an excellent entymologist, and loves to be in the garden finding frogs. I am also an occasional pig farmer – my friend has a small farm and once a year we raise rare breed pigs such as Middlewhites and Gloucester Old-Spot/Tamworth crosses. We live in the Peak District, in beautiful Buxton, which has such fantastic countryside to explore. I also like to cook – I will cook everything – and make my own prosciutto from the pigs.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
I’d have to say my family. And iPhone.