We spoke to Hannah Clarke, a second year PhD student at the University of Liverpool, about her work and why she got involved in dementia research.
What does your project focus on?
All of the cells in our body have a sugar coating; chains of sugar molecules decorate the cell surface and have a huge range of roles in the body – from regulating blood clotting to orchestrating the immune system. I am interested in how a special type of cell sugar changes as we age and how this might play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, this sugar has been shown to block a key step in the production of amyloid, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. I am using brain tissue generously donated by people with Alzheimer’s and healthy people of the same age to study these sugar coatings. We hope that this work will provide a potential target for future drug development.
What hope could this bring to people with dementia?
I’m trying to get to the bottom of what actually causes Alzheimer’s. By understanding what happens at the very beginning of the process, we’ll be able to work out ways to stop the disease in its tracks earlier on.
Why did you decide to do a PhD in dementia research?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do at school, but I’d always loved biology so I decided to go to the University of Manchester to study for a degree in the subject. However, I quickly realised that I didn’t have much interest in plants, so after a year I swapped to neuroscience. I was lucky enough to get a yearlong placement with the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, where I worked on a project focusing on tau – another hallmark protein in Alzheimer’s and several other neurodegenerative diseases. That year opened my mind to the huge breadth of dementia research and convinced me I wanted to pursue a career in academic science. However, instead of carrying on my work with tau, I switched camps for my PhD, and have been looking at the build-up of amyloid. I think that both contribute to the symptoms that people experience, but that amyloid builds up first. As I want to get to grips with what happens right at the start of the disease, I decided to study the protein further.
What’s the best thing about working as a scientist?
I love the freedom. I can steer the project in the direction I want; if something doesn’t work, I can take the time to find out why. Sometimes that takes you in new directions you don’t expect. I do what interests me and can follow the most promising leads that are most likely to lead to the new developments we all want for people with dementia.
What would you say to convince someone about the importance of dementia research in one line?
Our lifespans are increasing but it is important that we age healthily and we need to find out how.
What do you like to do outside the lab?
Normal things! Socialising, going to the gym. I enjoy travelling and was recently in Thailand.
What one thing couldn’t you live without?
My friends and family to keep me sane!