Promising research on neuronal ageing in a non-mammalian model recognised by David Sainsbury Fellowship

Invertebrates such as Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly) are used extensively in research on complex biological processes and disease mechanisms. They have the potential to replace the use of mammalian models in some studies, particularly in rodents, but maximising this opportunity is challenging and dependent on building confidence in non-mammalian models as realistic alternatives.

This is the aim of the latest NC3Rs David Sainsbury Fellowship, awarded to Dr Alessio Vagnoni from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

With NC3Rs funding, Dr Vagnoni (pictured) will further develop and validate Drosophila as an alternative to mammalian models in ageing research, including exploring questions about the ageing of neurons, which is particularly relevant to age-related diseases such as dementia.

Dr Vagnoni’s research uses a powerful new imaging technique that takes advantage of the fruit fly’s transparent wings, which make it easy to observe intact neurons as they age, allowing researchers to gather information in real time. The fly’s short life span also makes it a more practical and cost effective model for studying the long-term effects of ageing than traditional mouse models.

The project will combine genetics, biochemistry and live imaging to study the regulators of axonal transport and mitochondrial trafficking in particular. This process is crucial for the function of neurons and becomes less efficient as the cells age. This is an area of interest for many research groups and once fully established, the model has the potential to be adopted internationally.

Dr Vicky Robinson CBE, Chief Executive of the NC3Rs said: “Alessio’s project stood out as an excellent example of where developing a new technology with evident scientific advantages overcomes the need to use rodents in an area that heavily relies on them as models. Building confidence in non-mammalian models as alternatives is key to wider adoption and Alessio’s project will make an important contribution to this goal.”   

Dr Vagnoni said: “Understanding how neurons age is an exciting scientific challenge with significant societal implications. Becoming an NC3Rs David Sainsbury Fellow will give me a unique opportunity to develop a novel strategy, inspired by the 3Rs principles, to shed light on key processes underpinning ageing in neurons.”

The David Sainsbury Fellowship scheme was introduced in 2012 as part of our strategy to support talented early career scientists engage in 3Rs research. Alessio is the tenth Fellow to be appointed.

For more information about the David Sainsbury Fellowships that have been previously funded, please see the Our Science pages on our website.

The 2016 David Sainsbury Fellowship competition will open for applications in the spring.

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