On a chilly day in early spring, an unlikely group gathered in a spacious office at Harvard Medical School – the office of Michael Greenberg, Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology, one of the most respected and prolific neurobiology departments in the world. Joining Dr. Greenberg was Adrian Bird of the University of Edinburgh and Gail Mandel, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator from Oregon Health & Sciences University. These names are well known to anyone who is at all familiar with the Rett research literature, yet none of these distinguished scientists would describe themselves as a “Rett Syndrome researcher.” The questions that have kept them busy throughout their careers revolve around basic science phenomena such as DNA methylation, gene expression and brain plasticity.
Each of these scientists has been drawn to Rett Syndrome via a different route, and their combined interests will now create a powerful synergy to explore the most basic mystery of Rett: What is the precise function of MeCP2 in the brain?
RSRT Invests Record $1.8 million in Three-Way Collaborative Experiments To Speed Path to Drug Development
Dr. Greenberg called me one day last year and said “I’m coming to you with a far-out proposition.” He confessed that elucidating the role of MeCP2 was the most challenging problem he had ever worked on (a striking remark, coming from a scientist as accomplished as Dr. Greenberg) and that the chances of success would be greatly increased if he could put his head together with outstanding researchers with complementary expertise. He asked me to explore whether there might be any mutual interest on the part of Drs. Bird and Mandel. I did so, and the response was enthusiastically positive. Synchronicity was on our side. RSRT Trustee Tony Schoener and his wife, Kathy, were interested in funding a high-impact project: the MECP2 Consortium was born.
I recently caught up with the investigators to discuss this novel and non-traditional collaboration.
Coenraads: How would the three of you define the goal of the Consortium?
Bird: The goal of the Consortium is to bring about a step-change in our understanding of the function of MeCP2 in relation to Rett Syndrome, which we believe will be vital for designing rational treatment therapies. Unlike most other autism spectrum disorders, we know exactly the root cause of this disorder, but explaining in molecular terms just why absence of functional MeCP2 brings about Rett’s particular constellation of symptoms still eludes us.
We already have useful information about what MeCP2 might do in cells – we know it is a chromosome binding protein that targets DNA methylation; we know it becomes chemically altered when nerve cells are active; and we know that other types of cells in the brain apart from nerve cells also need MeCP2 for the brain to function normally – but there is no consensus among scientists about why MeCP2 is needed for the brain to work properly.
Our joint view is that solving this tricky problem calls for cooperation between laboratories with different expertise. Gail, Mike and I have rather different slants on biology due to our training and backgrounds, but we appear to complement each other nicely. Our view is that the next few years will see advances in our understanding of both MeCP2 and the brain. The timing feels right and it will be exciting to see what happens.
Mandel: The goal of the Consortium, from my point of view, is to put our heads together to generate new ideas, and to critically evaluate each other’s ideas and experiments, and to collaborate on experiments where the expertise is complimentary. I also view it as an opportunity to engage our young scientists in training in rigorous translational biology.
Coenraads: That is a good point Dr. Mandel. The Consortium goes well beyond the three of you. It requires the active participation of all of your lab members, who will be interacting with each other on a regular basis.
Greenberg: I propose that “speed” is a part of the equation as well. The goal of the Consortium is to gain rapid understanding of the molecular and cellular basis of Rett Syndrome through a collaborative effort.
Coenraads: During the 12 years that I’ve been working with the scientific community the concept of consortiums has been discussed from time to time. It strikes me that what differentiates a true collaboration from one that is superficial and in name only is that the desire to collaborate has to come from the scientists themselves. Collaborations cannot be imposed from above and made attractive with the bribe of money. Meaningful collaborations come from the bottom up and are nurtured by mutual respect and trust and a strong sense that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.
How is working with the Consortium different than how you’ve worked in the past? Has it required any kind of mental shift in your personal working style?
Mandel: Having had a long-term collaboration with my husband, who is also a scientist, I have first hand knowledge of the virtue of consortiums. My personal style has also, I think, been open to collaboration. Similarly, my lab members work very well as a team.
Bird: Science is normally a competitive activity. Discretion at least is required, if not complete secrecy, if one is to avoid the trauma of being beaten to your goal by other laboratories and scooped by their prior publication. This dog-eat-dog culture among many researchers has its advantages in that it can accelerate discovery, but is often at odds with the needs of a charity like RSRT, which may wish to have scientists putting their heads together to solve pressing, clinically relevant problems.
Our consortium intends to do the latter. We share unpublished data and resources. We speak regularly on the phone and meet several times a year to bring each other up to date on what’s new. The Consortium is still at the beginning, but already it is having an impact on the research going on in our laboratories. To be honest, I find it refreshing to be part of an endeavor that transcends our personal ambitions for a higher purpose.
Greenberg: I agree. I feel that although the Consortium research effort began just a few months ago we are already seeing a benefit. The pace of progress in understanding Rett Syndrome is already beginning to accelerate. My expectation is that through collaborative interactions with the Bird and Mandel laboratories we will be able to overcome current obstacles to understanding the molecular basis of the disorder. I think that we can expect to make key discoveries that will lead to new ideas for therapies for treating Rett Syndrome in the near future.
Coenraads: I think it’s also important to point out that the discoveries that the Consortium will likely yield will help not only Rett Syndrome but also the MECP2 Duplication Syndrome and all disorders caused by alterations in MECP2.
RSRT has committed $1.8 million to the MECP2 Consortium. The Schoeners have contributed $1 million to the endeavor. It’s an understatement to say that without them it’s unlikely we could have launched the Consortium so quickly. I thank them for their generosity, commitment and frankly, their belief in the scientific process.
To the three of you I wish you much success. I look forward to our monthly Consortium calls and in-person meetings and to keeping our readers apprised of your progress.