Could venoms one day be used to treat neurodegeneration?

The QPatch shared, core automated patch clamp facility at IMB, University of Queensland has served several ion channel groups since its adoption in 2012. In over 50 papers their work has forged new ground, often leading the world in venom peptides research and their modulation of ion channels.

Ahead of Dr. Fernanda Cardoso’s talk at ICMS in Cambridge, United Kingdom, next week, we caught up to discuss her lab’s work in venoms and how it’s led to novel research avenues in motor neurodegeneration.

What was the impetus that first got you into motor neurodegeneration?

My passion is fueled by the urgent need for drugs to treat neurodegenerative diseases affecting so many loved ones. I realized the significant research gap in using ion channel modulators for understanding neurodegenerative pathways and as therapeutic leads during a 2015 conference at UQ. A few years later, while building my collaborative network, I honed in on motor neurodegeneration to test my hypothesis.

Any unexpected findings, quirks or funny stories that struck you whilst doing your neurodegeneration work?

Funny enough, the major off-target in my past chronic pain research, at the Lewis Lab, is now my main target to halt neurodegeneration! After diving deep into how venom peptides modulate this target, I realized I could transfer those skills to my new program – and it’s working like a charm!

Were there key challenges that you managed to overcome or techniques that needed mastering?

We are overcoming many challenges in our mission. We are developing strategies for CNS-restricted delivery to harness the therapeutic potential of ion channel modulators without systemic side effects. Our parallel in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo screens ensure our peptide leads perform well in vivo from the early stages. One major challenge is enhancing the throughput of ex vivo electrophysiology in rodent models – crucial experiments for the drug development process and a vital guide for our in vitro work moving forward. Together, we are paving the way for groundbreaking treatments.

The breadth of techniques that your papers always use is really impressive and a great example of multi-disciplinary science being so fruitful. Is that something that IMB fosters or have you all had to work hard to develop that along the way?

We must work tirelessly to build a robust network of experts for multidisciplinary research. In this new program, I collaborate with specialists in CNS electrophysiology, zebrafish preclinical models of motor neurodegeneration, and clinical researchers to guide us throughout. This incredible collaborative network, though outside the IMB, is still within the University of Queensland. Together, we can rise to the challenge and achieve groundbreaking results.

Where do you see or want the lab’s work going in the next few years?

In the coming years, I envision my lab pioneering innovative research that brings real benefits to our aging population, increasingly affected by neurodegenerative disorders. I see us developing novel therapeutics using our advanced venom-based drug development platforms and making significant strides in strategic and innovative drug delivery systems. Together, we aim to create a brighter, healthier future for those in need.

Does your geographical location Down Under give you a degree of independence and pioneering spirit that benefits your science (which seems to be the case since you’re all so productive, always with great new, innovative areas of investigation) or do you feel that collaborations, funding, etc. are sometimes limited by it?

I am driven by a pioneering spirit, mentored by outstanding researchers in ion channels and venom peptides, including my former supervisor of nearly 10 years, Prof. Richard Lewis. Despite facing limited collaborations and funding challenges here Down Under, my new neurodegeneration program is fully funded by the US government, not Australia.

While I have incredible collaborators in Australia, my international network has been crucial for pushing my research into innovative realms. This is why I am so excited about the upcoming ICMS in Cambridge, where I hope to further expand these vital connections and continue breaking new ground in my field.

Dr. Fernanda Cardoso, thank you for elaborating on your research. We look forward to hearing your talk ‘Probing ion channels on motor pathways sheds light on pathophysiological mechanisms and key drug targets in motor neurodegeneration’ at ICMS UK 2024, in Cambridge next week.

Check out the full program for ICMS UK 2024 here

Unfortunately, we are fully booked for this event. If you didn’t get a spot, don’t worry. A recording of the talks will be made available after the symposium on our website.