Science by the sea

This October, I had the opportunity to attend the first Neuroinflammation Summer School, which was held in association with the Venusberg Meeting on Neuroinflammation and took place in Spain. The School was organized by Prof. Michael Heneka and featured many prominent academics that specialize in various aspects of neurodegenerative disorders and inflammation within the central nervous system. It was quite a journey to reach the School, however one flight and a three-hour car ride later, I found myself in a beautiful hotel and conference center in Chiclana de la Frontera, in the south of Spain.

Beach and Ocean in Spain (photo by R. McManus)

The first Neuroinflammation Summer School was opened by Prof. Heneka with an exciting talk on Alzheimer’s disease and the contribution of the inflammasome to disease progression. The sessions finished at 6 pm, which gave us some time to walk along the beautiful Spanish beach before the group dinner in the evening. As there were 30 PhD students and postdocs in attendance (in addition to the academic staff, who provided lectures and chaired the scientific sessions), the group was the perfect size to quickly get on a first-name basis with everyone. The food in the hotel was amazing. Let’s just take a second away from science to discuss the food. Fresh fruit, meat and vegetables were available at every meal, prepared right in front of you, with a carvery, and a special desert bar to make up the perfect combination of ice-cream, sauce and sprinkles as you wished… Did I mention the food was amazing?!

Back to science. Each morning began with a lecture on an aspect of neuroinflammation, which was followed by a journal presentation by a group of the attendees (a mixture of PhD students and postdocs), lunch, another lecture by a leading academic, then a different group of students and postdocs led the “hypothesis corner”. The day ended with a skills and tool box session that was organized by one of the lecturers. This section included topics such as “How to write a successful grant” and “Starting your own lab”, which was interesting to all PhD students and postdocs present.

The lectures were very thorough. As the background of the participants was so varied, each lecturer gave a great overview of their topic before delving into the exciting and latest finding in their field. I learned more about the role of microglia, astrocytes and other myeloid cells in aging, Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and in the progression of brain tumours. A key feature of the School was that prominent, established members of the scientific community including Prof. Gary Landreth, Prof. Betrand Joseph, Prof. Erik Boddeke and Prof. Severine Boilleé provided these lectures. The lecturers stayed for all, or most of the week and with such an intimate group, it provided a wonderful opportunity to chat with them over lunch or coffee during the day.

I had the opportunity to be involved in two student/postdoc presentations during the School. The first was a journal presentation early in the week, and this session was chaired by Prof. Joseph. The purpose of the journal presentations during the Summer School was to challenge the group to present the data in a new way, to highlight the relevance of the findings or the faults within the journal article, in the context of what is already known about the particular area the paper refers to. Our group decided to have a slightly unconventional presentation. The article we selected (The antibody aducanumab reduces Aβ plaques in Alzheimer’s disease, Sevigny et al., 2016) was discussed by the national and international media, and was featured in newspapers throughout the world. Importantly, the key message of the journal article was dramatically different between the original article and what was published in the public media. The Nature article detailed the results of a small phase 1 clinical trial, however, the regular newspapers described the results as the “best news for dementia in 25 years”. This led to an interesting discussion on the role of science in the media and the communication of scientific findings to the layperson. The second presentation I was involved in was chaired by Prof. Heneka, and featured the role of co-morbidities in the progression of neurodegeneration. Unfortunately, it can be easy to overlook the contribution of co-morbidities in neuroinflammatory diseases, as it is difficult to model them in the lab when also looking at the role of other disease-related factors or signaling pathways etc. This presentation aimed to highlight the role of diet, infection, weight and even physical injuries on the progression of neurodegeneration.

During the Summer School there were plenty of opportunities to get to know the other PhD students and postdocs who had travelled to the meeting. The participants came from other labs in Germany but also labs in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden. Interestingly, their country of origin was even more varied and included places like Greece, Mexico and the Netherlands.

After a full week of listening, learning and working together at the School, I went back to Bonn full of new scientific knowledge and with the promise to meet up with everyone again at the next neuroinflammation conference, which will be the Venusberg meeting in Bonn in May 2017. I had a great time at the Summer School in Spain, both personally and professionally, and I would like to thank the ImmunoSensation Cluster for their support to partake in this School.

Group photo of some members of the Heneka Lab in Cádiz, Spain (by R. McManus)

Author: Roisin McManus