A peek inside the life of the Australian ‘godmother of genomics’

Overcoming doubt may be key to bringing these rare species back from extinction

The invention of a method of “pushing and pulling” a key molecule through the body to reverse genes that cause multiple sclerosis could unlock new treatments for this devastating condition.

Developing alternative therapies for multiple sclerosis, which costs the US almost $17bn (£12.3bn) a year, is a challenge facing scientists. It is also thought to cause a deficiency in immune cells which may result in the disease killing healthy cells in the brain and spinal cord.

Minus the distraction of her job as a CSIRO physicist, Hilda Wilson has been secretly editing genes through whole blood samples from families, a task she admits was like “playing with fire”.

After almost four years of trial and error and the odd major setback, she has now combined her skills with those of two other researchers at the CSIRO, Bryan Joon and Andrew Fowler, to develop a far more powerful way of achieving this.

Wilson described the scientific trick as a “slide on the window shade, changing the angle of the light to correct any sign of genetic memory in a process known as hypoarrhythmia or DNA replication”.

Using the best available methods, which include interfering with a single gene, Wilson and her team have discovered a way to merge the two and reverse “forgotten” diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Dual-task scientists post embarrassing internet picture Read more

“The research would mean we can recover genetic mutations that cause multiple sclerosis that have been written into cells,” Wilson said. “With different kinds of modifications, we can potentially change this effects in many different ways – they’re a fantastic potential tool.”

Aware that having done so would trigger a state of disbelief among some, Wilson agreed: “This is science fiction to some people, but it’s not science fiction to me. I don’t think you could invent something that saves millions of lives without being controversial.”

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune condition that interrupts the transmission of messages in the body between nerve cells, which translate to muscle weakness and mental lapses. It’s estimated that as many as 90% of people who have suffered from the condition die within three years of diagnosis.

The research, published in Nature Communications, aims to bring hope to millions of people who have suffered from this condition.

“It’s a miracle for some, and it’s a story that I was writing long before the technology came along,” Wilson said. “But even though I was two years ago the research isn’t over yet.”

Leave a Comment