Breathing life back into dying brain cells

Almost one year after he took over as Scientific Director of Robarts Research Institute, John MacDonald is finally settling into his new digs – his new lab space, that is.



John MacDonald, Scientific Director of Robarts Research Institute, is moving into his new lab space on the seventh floor of the institute. He will use the space to continue research into stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and prevention of brain cell loss.  


Since he began at the institute, MacDonald has been adamant about maintaining his research profile while also tackling his administrative position. The work balance is about 100 per cent administration and 50 per cent research, he jokes.


Keeping his commitment to research, MacDonald moved his lab in December from the University of Toronto to a temporary space in Robarts.



But, now that his lab has replaced Christmas trees and office supplies on the seventh floor of the institute, MacDonald and a research team have a more permanent location to continue work on the mechanism of cell loss and cell death in the brain during strokes, degenerative disease and epilepsy.



Although moving can be a nightmare, renovating the seventh floor has been every researcher’s dream.



“My lab is a bit scattered. That’s all going to change this week,” he says during a recent interview. “Physical Plant and the university got the renovations done on time and under budget.”



MacDonald hopes to capitalize on the strengths at Robarts in neuroscience and vascular research, as well as imaging, to carve out a reputation as a leading university centre for stroke and Alzheimer’s disease research.



During a stroke there is a temporary reduction of blood supply to the brain and some brain cells die as a result. However, there is a larger group of cells surrounding that survive, but over the following weeks or even months they will die off.



“It’s as if there is a built-in mechanism that if there is damage, (it says) let’s gets rid of all of those cells,” he says, adding the result is significant impairment to motor skills, cognitive abilities, speech and memory.



“If we can prevent those cells from dying, we can actually preserve a lot of those functions. The stroke’s already occurred; there is nothing we can do about that. We can actually make the recovery phase for the patient that much better.”


Those who have experienced a stroke are also more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.



“It’s a place for us to design pharmaceuticals that we could use to intervene and prevent loss of cells.”



Although strokes are common, drug advances have been limited.


Currently, the only drug treatment for stroke is tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, which dissolves blood clots. However, the drug must be administered within three hours after symptoms begin in order to be effective.



This narrow window creates challenges and can be amplified by a person’s access to a hospital. Proper diagnosis is essential for prescribing the drug because it is ineffective and possibly fatal for bleeding strokes, for which clots are needed to halt blood flow.



MacDonald’s team is currently developing a drug for the treatment of stroke – now in phase two of clinical trials – that saves cells that would otherwise die in the weeks or months following a stroke.


He is also conducting research to better understand the basic mechanisms of learning and memory.



“Some of the most susceptible to stroke are cells related to learning and memory,” he says.  


In Alzheimer’s disease, loss of function occurs long before cells die. “We need to find a way to intervene long before the cells are on their way out.”



MacDonald expects his lab to be fully set up by the end of the month. He shares the seventh floor with 40 people, including two other primary investigators.


Although there has been uncertainty about Robarts’ future as it becomes integrated into the Western family, “we’ve made tremendous progress,” says MacDonald. Officially, Robarts reports to the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.



Partnerships with other faculties on campus have bridged the gaps and created new collaborative research opportunities. Building on Robarts’ strengths, particularly its signature areas in neuroscience and imaging, will help the institute remain at the forefront of cutting-edge research in Canada, he says.