Michael Schrauben, the John Slate Scholar

PhD Medical Studies

Almost a year has passed since I began this PhD and it has been an amazing and challenging experience. After completing a Masters by Research at Imperial College London, I set out to transition from Cancer Biology to Neuroscience and found the perfect match in the project offered by the Complex Disease Epigenetics Group at the University of Exeter. Their research on the genetics and epigenetics of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with Lewy Bodies is fascinating and I’m elated to contribute to this field with my work.

The project intends to elucidate the role of environmental factors and age-related processes in the development of disease, as recent studies identified associations between chronic inflammation, ageing and the non-mutation based changes to the patient’s genes that we call epigenetic variation. With the help of gene editing tools, we intend to emulate these modifications on the genes of cells in a dish, which will deliver insight into the mechanisms behind neurodegeneration that in turn would accelerate the development of novel therapeutics. We aim to perform such experiments focusing on dementia with Lewy Bodies-related genes once we have confirmed the causative role of said epigenetic variation in the context of Alzheimer’s disease.

So far, we have successfully created clinically safe viruses as delivery vehicles for our molecular tools that remove a chemical modification on genes known as methylation, which has a role in the development of others diseases such as cancer. The human cells that we work with in the lab derive from neurons and microglia, which form the information-processing and immune cells of the brain respectively. At this moment, we have delivered our gene editing tools into said cells where they will remove the methylation on genes. Thereafter, we will validate their performance by surveying the methylation status of our genes of interest and investigate any resulting changes in the behaviour of our cells that could contribute to the pathology. These experiments form the basis of our project, which we hope to scale up significantly in the coming years to improve upon our understanding of neurodegeneration.

Your charitable donation has facilitated these novel experiments and will continue to do so with the many ideas we have planned. With new technologies at our disposal, such as the Agilent 4200 TapeStation system that you generously provided, we expect to produce impactful data that will be shared widely at scientific conferences. In fact, I recently went to the Epigenomics of Common Diseases conference at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge. This experience allowed me to introduce my project to researchers in our field who gave me important recommendations for my future experiments. Moreover, your support has allowed me to attend the Cardiff Summer School in Brain Disorder Research, which was a one week long lecture series on the current state of Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics research that developed my knowledge of the various academics and their work in our partner universities such as the Universities of Cardiff and Bristol. Lastly, I wanted to improve upon my scientific communication skills by speaking to the public about the current research efforts in our lab. To achieve this, I volunteered for Alzheimer Research UK (ARUK) at the Green Man Festival, where we set up engaging activities to inform festival goers about brain health and the latest research in dementia.

I would like to reiterate what a fantastic year it has been, both on the academic and research side, as well the personal development end. Thanks to your support I was able to gain immense practical, theoretical and public speaking experience for which I am incredibly grateful.

I look forward to keeping you updated on my progress!