Last month, the team at Publicis Life Brands, Real Science and Publicis Resolute were among the lucky few who were given the opportunity to visit the Tissue Bank at Imperial College London as part of Publicis Health UK’s support of the MS Society. The Tissue Bank allows people to donate their brain and spinal cord tissue for MS research after their death and is a vital resource that helps scientists around the world advance our understanding of this disease. Below, Tim, Kelsie, Dimuthu, Rhiannon and Camilla each discuss their key take-homes from the tour.
What did you find most surprising?
Tim: I was surprised to learn that there are samples in the tissue bank from whole families. We learned that researchers need to compare the tissue from people with MS to healthy tissue, and it can be useful to use family members for this comparison. This is because family members will share similar genetics, allowing scientists to consider the impact of environmental factors on MS.
Kelsie: I was also quite surprised by how little genetics actually impacts MS development. For example, we were told that if one identical twin has MS, the other is only at a 40% increased risk of developing MS too, which I initially would’ve thought was something closer to twice that. It’s really interesting to see how much of an impact environmental factors play in MS development.
Dimuthu: For me, it was the slightly meta nature of it all. That we’re listening to a neuroscientist explain the very mechanisms by which we hear, compute, structure thought, and respond – all while doing it entirely without conscious thought. And I find a certain poetry in our brains spending so much time and energy to understand themselves.
What did it feel like to hold a brain in your hands?
Tim: It was fascinating. I have a Master’s degree in neuroscience, so I am used to looking at brains in a textbook; but seeing a brain up close, I was struck by how fragile it seems. This vulnerability makes diseases like MS really devastating. Although the brain can repair the damaged caused by MS to a certain extent, eventually that regenerative capacity is exhausted. That is when people with MS start to ‘progress’, and their symptoms worsen.
Kelsie: I was actually surprised by how firm and dense it felt. It was very surreal! The brain we held was a healthy patient’s brain, but we also had the opportunity to examine cross-sectional samples of brains with signs of MS lesions, fungal infection, and benign and malignant tumours. It was very educational to see first-hand how these conditions manifest.
Dimuthu: Honestly, it triggered a series of flashbacks to my undergrad days – hours spent staring at the inferior aspect of a brain in bewilderment, trying to identify the various elements of the circle of willis, when it all seems to look the same. Reluctantly accepting that despite my many years of study, I can barely tell my midbrain from my pons today.
If you could pick one key message to communicate to the public, what would it be?
Rhiannon: Organ donation is so important. Without the brave donations of individuals, and even entire families, scientists at the MS tissue bank wouldn’t be able to support the global effort to advance our understanding of MS, and ultimately develop novel therapies for patients with MS.
Dimuthu: I totally agree with Rhiannon. I didn’t realise that the brain and spinal cord weren’t included in my organ donation request. I would encourage everyone and anyone to sign up to the MS Tissue Bank. The insights they can generate from donations are completely invaluable.
What was the most interesting thing that you learnt?
Rhiannon: Your brain can get bigger! Learning new skills can actually have a physical effect on our brains, similar to the way that exercise can strengthen our muscles. Our brains really do have the capacity to achieve anything, we just need to use them!
Dimuthu: Yes! Dr Djordje Gveric, Tissue Bank Manager, mentioned a study that showed London black cab drivers to have enlarged hippocampi due to the years of learning and navigation. It’s especially interesting given the average age of a cabbie is higher than the age at which you’d expect the brain to stop developing. Shows that you’re never too old to learn something new!
Camilla: I have not worked in MS before, so knew little about MS lesions in the brain. Dr Gveric described in detail how you can see that the cells around the lesion look more gelatinous versus the healthy brain tissue. Seeing a lesion up close helped me make the connection between that and all the debilitating physical effects MS has on the human body.
What did you find most inspiring?
Rhiannon: The passion of the researchers at the MS tissue bank. As Dr Gveric was showing us samples of brain tissue, and even intact brains, the care and respect he displayed when handling the specimens was evident. I think we all came away with a deeper understanding that the work carried out by scientists researching MS is invaluable.
Camilla:I have a real admiration for pathologists. They are able to cut into a brain and, like a detective, slowly piece together the story of that person. Dr Gveric sometimes discovered parts of a medical history that even the patient themselves did not know about, let alone their families. He pointed at tiny indents and cell deformations that the average person would never notice and began to weave together that brain’s individual journey to his lab. His passion for his job and his ambition to do further research in this area (as well as help researchers across the globe) was truly inspiring.
What impact does the MS Tissue Bank have on MS research across the world?
Tim: We learned that the Tissue Bank plays a crucial role in supporting MS research. They send out samples to universities and research institutions all over the world. Without repositories like this one, it would be more difficult for researchers to obtain the precious material that they need for their work, and MS research would suffer as a result.
What did you learn about MS that you didn’t know before?
Kelsie: I didn’t know what an MS lesion actually looked like before the tour. You hear the word a lot when you read about it, but to see one up close was very interesting. It kind of looks like a gelatine-filled cut in the brain. Also, I didn’t know that the brain is able to repair a lot of the initial damage caused by MS flares. Unfortunately, the damage eventually accumulates and leads to the debilitating symptoms of the disease, but it’s fascinating to learn just how much the human brain is capable of.
Camilla:It’s tricky to pick just one thing, but what stuck in my mind was when Dr Gveric spoke about the possible causes of MS. Of course, this is an ongoing debate, but he did mention the possible link between the virus that causes glandular fever and MS. It surprised me that such a seemingly harmless virus that mainly affects teenagers and young adults could increase your risk of suffering from MS later in life. It hit home that MS feels a bit like an unfair lottery, and as Dr Gveric said right at the beginning – it’s unlikely that we could name many celebrities who have MS since it is such a debilitating condition. Good health is a gift and we are lucky that we have research teams, like Dr Gveric’s, who are working tirelessly to ensure it’s a gift that more people can enjoy.
Find out more about the MS Society Tissue Bank here.