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Case Studies

Discovering the Causes of Alzheimers - how research at Warwick, funded by the National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction in the Use of Animals, is helping address Alzheimer ’s disease

fruit flyWith cases of Alzheimer’s Disease rapidly increasing each year, the medical world is desperate for more information and a better understanding of the mechanism that triggers it in people who, up until the point they are diagnosed, have appeared in good mental health. Leading scientists at the University of Warwick have been working on a way to understand what causes the degenerative brain disease and are seeking help from an unexpected source ….. the common fruit fly.

Using funding from the Alzheimer’s Trust and the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), researchers have identified that a particular protein in the brain called ‘Tau’, becomes modified in such a way that it kills off healthy brain cells. As this action repeats itself over time, vital brain skills are lost and the commonly recognisable Alzheimer’s symptoms start to manifest themselves in patients.

To make the fruit fly more relevant to human Alzheimer’s disease, Warwick neuroscientists have genetically introduced a human version of the tau gene into the fly and expressed this in the fly’s eye. In doing so the effects of tau modification can be readily observed and quantified using innovative analysis developed by colleagues in the Department of Statistics and Centre for Complexity Science.

This approach helps to mirror what happens in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s and allows potential disease-modifying biochemical pathways to be identified.

Indications from this research show scientists are very close to identifying which key enzymes control the Tau proteins. The next step will be to trial the effect of drugs on these key markers or indicators in the brain and therefore edge a step closer to a better understanding and possible management of this distressing and degenerative condition.

Test-tube models of epilepsy help advance the understanding of a common brain disorder

University of Warwick neuroscientists are studying the basic mechanisms of epileptic seizures in test-tube models of epilepsy. The group uses thin slices of rodent hippocampus, a region of the brain often affected by epilepsy in humans, to study the release and effects of a naturally occurring anticonvulsant.

The research uses electrophysiological techniques to measure the electrical activity of brain cells, the application of chemicals (pharmacology) to study the actions of signalling molecules released during seizure activity and biosensors developed at Warwick to measure in real-time the release of a range of molecules that influence seizure activity.

The team hopes that by using these in vitro models of epilepsy that greater insight will be gained into the underlying processes involved in epilepsy and which will hopefully lead to better treatments for this debilitating condition from which many people suffer. The use of in vitro (“test-tube”) techniques, although not suitable for every type of investigation, replaces the use of live animals in biomedical research and reduces the number used.

How research at Warwick, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, is helping to reduce lameness in sheep

Lame Sheep Case StudyEvery year every one of the twelve million sheep in GB has a 50% probability of becoming lame. Sheep that are lame for longer than a week become thinner and are less able to produce and rear lambs.

We have been funded by BBSRC to identify practical approaches to minimise the time individual sheep are lame and, long term, to identify approaches to prevent sheep from becoming lame.

Most cases of lameness are footrot that is caused by one bacterium that lives on the foot of the sheep. Much of our work is with commercial sheep farmers in GB (over 4000 have helped us over the past 10 years). Through this work we have identified that a rapid and appropriate treatment can lead to lame sheep recovering in 2 – 3 days. Sheep treated this way do not become thinner, and continue to care for their lambs. This treatment is available and is currently being recommended to farmers to use throughout GB.

Little is known about the bacterium that causes footrot. We have been studying aspects of its molecular structure with the aim of identifying how the bacterium causes disease and how an effective vaccine might be developed. This is a long term project.