Can you tell us about your PhD research?
The main focus of my research has been on evaluating patient-specific cell replacement therapy for Parkinson’s disease (PD). PD is characterised by a loss of dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain and accumulation of the toxic protein alpha-synuclein. One aim of the Parmar lab is to use reprogrammed cells to generate dopaminergic neurons for cell replacement therapy, restoring dopamine production to normal physiological levels and slowing/reversing the progression of the disease.
The first half of my thesis has focused on developing in vitro reprogramming protocols which can be used for PD patient samples. During the second half, I have been investigating reprogrammed neurons after transplantation into the brain in different rat models of PD. Using various different readouts - including behavioral studies and histological analysis - we can investigate how well the transplanted neurons survive and integrate. We have also developed a new transplantation model where we can monitor changes in the levels of inflammation in the brain and accumulation of alpha-synuclein in the transplanted neurons. We have been asking whether these patient-derived cells stay healthy and provide therapeutic benefit, or if they develop features of the disease.
The future treatment of PD with cell replacement therapy using patient-derived cells is a very exciting prospect. This would also mean that patients would not have to undergo the current intense immunosuppressive regimes necessary to avoid graft rejection.
How did you end up at Lund Stem Cell Center?
I’m originally from Northampton in the U.K. After studying for a dual Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience and Psychology at Keele University, I completed a Master’s in Neuroscience Research. It was during this time that I became fascinated by regeneration within the brain.
I came to Lund University as an Erasmus student for around nine months as part of my Master’s degree, joining the research group of Prof. Cecilia Lundberg. I was working on a project investigating gene therapy for PD and at the same time a lot of interesting data started to come out from the early clinical trials for cell replacement therapy in Lund. Whilst I was here a PhD position was advertised in Malin’s group so I applied and joined the lab after completing my Master’s degree.
What have been the most challenging aspects of your PhD?
Well, the last year has been quite difficult with the pandemic. In our department we now work in shifts, which means that I don’t always get a chance to meet up with the people that I have projects with. I miss interacting with members of the group, discussing projects, organizing experiments or just having a chat.
And the most rewarding?
I have really enjoyed going to conferences - networking, presenting my research and getting feedback on my work. I have also been involved in the pre-clinical studies for the large-scale cell therapy for PD clinical trial (STEM-PD) that our group is running along with Novo Nordisk. This has been a very enjoyable and inspiring experience, taking a step back from the lab bench to see the bigger picture and how our research has the potential to help so many patients.
What are your future plans?
The initial plan was to travel and work abroad, but the pandemic has complicated this. So, for the next year I’ll remain at Lund Stem Cell Center working in Malin’s group. In the future I would like to work with translational or clinical research in the Lund-Malmö-Copenhagen area.
What you like to do when you are not researching?
Well, at the moment there’s not much you can do, but I actually got a puppy in October. He’s a little Dachshund called Stevie and I spend a lot of time playing with him and taking him for walks.
What have you enjoyed the most whilst researching at Lund Stem Cell Center?
I have really appreciated all of the seminars, workshops and events organised for PhD students by the Research School in Stem Cell Biology. I have also enjoyed participating in the outreach events such as the annual Unistem day and the ‘taking science to schools – borrow a scientist’ initiative.
Shelby will be defending her PhD thesis titled ‘Exploring Patient-Specific Cell Replacement Therapy for Parkinson's Disease’ on Friday 12th March at 09:00 in Segerfalksalen, BMC A10.
Zoom link: https://lu-se.zoom.us/j/62063710446.
Her opponent is Assoc. Prof. Morten Meyer, SDU, Odense, Denmark