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Spotlight on Dr Mahmoud Maina

Research Fellow in Biochemistry at the School of Life Sciences

Previous research

I developed an interest in neuroscience when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Nigeria. I realised that among the public, there seemed to be a high-level of misconception about brain diseases; people with such diseases are extremely stigmatised. This increased my interest in working in this area. But due to the weakness in brain research in Nigeria, I realised that I need to leave home to develop in this area of research; this ambition led me to Sussex.

When I joined Sussex for my Masters I met Dr Jullian Thorpe and Professor Louise Serpell, who both work on neurodegenerative diseases. I loved their projects and it fitted well with my long-term career plans. I subsequently chose to do my project on Alzheimer’s disease with Louise Serpell, and this was how I eventually ended up researching Alzheimer's disease.


Current research

Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of ageing. It is not just a disease of old age as most people believe, ageing is just a risk factor for developing the disease. You might live until you are 100 or 110 without having the disease, and there are a lot of risk factors that make you susceptible. In a nutshell, my research aims to understand what drives the disease at the cellular level and what we can do to stop it.

In Alzheimer's disease there are two important proteins, one called amyloid beta and the other Tau. These two proteins seem to be important in driving the disease, and so are potential targets.

Spotlight Photo 2 Mahmoud MainaTau protein was thought to be a protein that binds to railroad-like tracks that allow cells to transport cargo. My work questions whether this protein could be doing something else as well. Despite the disease being discovered over a hundred years ago we still don't have an effective treatment. Part of the reason is because we still don't fully understand what causes or drives the disease. My work now shows that tau can be found and plays a role in another compartment of the cell called nucleolus which is involved in the production of raw materials needed for cell function. This is exciting and may eventually help us to identify other therapeutic targets for the disease. 

We know that amyloid beta protein is toxic to cells but we still lack detailed knowledge of how it goes on to kill cells. By making this protein artificially in the lab and administering them to brain cells in a dish, my work found that it slowly stresses the cells, that increases over time, goes on to change the localisation of tau in the nucleolus, and eventually reduce the production of raw materials needed for cell function, something that has not been clearly demonstrated before. Importantly, work from many research groups has shown that amyloid beta protein starts changing decades before Alzheimer’s disease onset, which means that it is probably what causes or drives the disease from an early stage. Therefore, it is very exciting to show that in a dish model, we could see this gradual change, which leads to stress build up over time that makes cells sick and unable to work properly. My current research now goes more in-depth into understanding how this stress in turn impacts on both amyloid beta and tau.

The real-life application of my research is informing drug development or alternative methods of making disease diagnosis which could potentially improve the conditions of people with this disease. My research findings can be taken up by drug companies, or even the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre.

I am a person that really likes science, especially molecular science, which often involves looking at what the eyes can’t see, unless we use equipment like the microscope. There is nothing as exciting as thinking about a particular question, experimenting, then looking down at your result on a microscope and finding the answer there.


The future

My ambition is to develop into an independent scientist. My plan eventually is to become established as a scientist and set up my research group. Eventually I would like to be able to take my research back to Africa or develop a strong collaboration with African researchers. Why is this important? Because I believe that finding treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's requires a multi-disciplinary collaborative approach.

In Africa there are a lot of medicinal plants that have been used for centuries to treat diseases, but these medicinal plants need to be investigated so that we can scientifically validate their efficacy, identify the active components that make them effective, identify their safe dosage and whether they are effective against diseases like Alzheimer's. Therefore, what I eventually want to do is take my understanding of this disease back home and investigate active medicinal plant components to see if we can find effective treatment against Alzheimer’s and other similar brain diseases.

My public engagement work in Africa tries to inspire the next generation and influence policy for science. I think Africa has strong potential for drug discovery, but there needs to be the infrastructure and young people need to be inspired to develop an interest in this area at a young stage. This is why I think that doing the research is not enough; it is equally important to inspire the future generation as well as inform policies with our research. The public and policymakers need to know the importance of our research, in order to buy their trust and get better support for scientific research. Who knows, hopefully in the next few years the science advocacy I've started in Africa, and similar advocacy work done by other people in the continent, would yield something that would allow scientific research to grow and flourish. If not, hopefully the aspiring scientists we continue to inspire will go on to do some exciting stuff in the future that would help the science in the whole continent.


By: Alexander Aghajanian
Last updated: Monday, 10 December 2018