Dr Samantha Barton completed her PhD in 2015 before receiving an NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Fellowship allowing her to commence her post-doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK. She spent two years abroad in a world-leading stem cell laboratory before being recruited to the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health (The Florey) to complete her fellowship. Within the Motor Neurone Disease (MND) laboratory at the Florey, Dr Barton leads a small team. She has received grant funding in excess of $1.3M, received 14 awards, supervised/mentored 12 students and been invited to present at five conferences (two international).
Understanding diseases of the brain remains one of the greatest medical challenges of the 21st Century, regardless of whether they are developmental (like schizophrenia or autism) or associated with ageing (like Parkinson’s Disease or MND). Whilst we know the biological processes associated with these diseases commence within the brain prior to the onset of symptoms, understanding these changes at a cellular and sub-cellular level is difficult as the human brain is so inaccessible.
Recent advances in stem cell research have enabled us to take a small skin biopsy from a patient and genetically alter it, so that it is no longer a skin cell but rather a master stem cell that can become any cell type found in the human body, including cell types of the brain. We can also culture these cells three-dimensionally, effectively growing ‘mini-brains’ in a dish. The strength of this technique is that we can make these ‘mini-brains’ using skin biopsies from patients living with neurological diseases, and then decipher how and why the cells within their ‘mini-brains’ differ to those from a person without disease. Dr Barton’s particular focus is on MND with her specific research question being to understand how cells of the brain and spinal cord talk to, and support one another, and how these processes are disrupted in MND. Understanding these processes will hopefully uncover previously unidentified disease pathways that can be targeted therapeutically in the hope of identifying new treatments for people living with MND.