Affiliation(s): Ottawa Hospital Research Institute
David Picketts is a Senior Scientist in the Regenerative Medicine Program at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a Full Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Immunology (BMI) at the University of Ottawa. He also serves as the Director of the Collaborative Program in Human Molecular Genetics.
He received his PhD from Queen’s University in Kingston, ON and pursued postdoctoral research at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, England. As a postdoctoral fellow, he cloned the ATRX gene as the cause of a developmental brain disorder associated with severe intellectual disability.
Dr. Pickett’s research team utilize transgenic mouse models in which genes encoding epigenetic regulators are genetically inactivated to identify their requirement during brain development and to obtain insight into the mechanisms causing diseases including intellectual disability, stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis. He recently became extremely interested in MS when one of his studies of a developmental brain injury model showed increased myelination after exercise.
How did you become interested in MS research? What inspires you to continue advancing research in this field?
I first became interested in MS research from discussions with my colleague Dr. Rashmi Kothary, who has been a long-time researcher in the field. More recently, we made a discovery that fueled our interest in MS. We found that the neuropeptide VGF was upregulated upon exercise and that it resulted in increased myelination in a developmental brain injury model in a mouse. This discovery made us very excited that we could use VGF to investigate whether it could enhance remyelination in MS and we applied and received a grant from the MS Society. This grant showed us that VGF peptides may have multiple roles in helping recovery by promoting remyelination and reducing inflammation. This molecule is very small and has been challenging and exciting to discover how it is working - this is what continues to drive us.
What do you enjoy most about doing research and what are some of the challenges you face?
The greatest enjoyment comes from the discovery of new things, especially unanticipated results. The identification that VGF could promote myelination was very exciting and a new role for this protein. Another great aspect of the job is training people how to become a good scientist. Working with young people keeps you feeling young yourself. One of the many challenges in research is the transitory nature of the business. A trainee stays for 3-5 years and is just becoming a driving force on a project when they graduate. The timing also makes it difficult to have them transfer their knowledge to the next person taking over the project resulting in a couple of steps back until the project starts moving forward again. In addition, each trainee has their own interpretation on how to perform an experiment which is akin to cooking - many people can follow a recipe for lasagna but not all lasagnas turn out the same.
Describe the importance and level of collaboration in your research?
The very nature of research is collaborative. People from different ethnic, social, and technical backgrounds work together towards a common goal. This occurs in every lab, but we must also seek reagents, protocols, and expertise from other labs to help move projects forward. It is impossible to think that a single scientist or lab could develop and make use of all the different techniques required to answer a complex problem by working in isolation. Indeed, we learned from our colleagues in Dr. Kothary's lab how to isolate Oligodendrocyte Precursor Cells (OPCs) and differentiate them into oligodendrocytes. This is a very challenging technique and without their help we may have spent several years just perfecting these cultures before we could use them for experiments.
How important is the support from the MS Society in enabling you to conduct research?
It is essential! The funding from our first MSSC grant allowed us to pursue this new line of research in our lab on VGF. Without it, the project would have never gotten off the ground and now we have made significant progress and were able to renew this grant to continue our studies. We are very grateful to everyone who donates to fund these research projects.
If you could ask one question to a person living with MS that would help you design your study, what would it be?
That is a very difficult question to answer since our project is in a discovery phase where we are trying to understand how VGF is promoting recovery at the cellular level. Should we be successful in showing that VGF peptides are highly beneficial and could be used as a potential therapeutic I would ask someone living with MS what would be the best way to deliver a treatment for them and then use that information to design how we would deliver VGF peptides.