Meet Dr Jing Zhao, who researches motor neurone disease.

What motivated you to become a researcher?

I was a clinician in China, and I found that no matter how hard I worked, I could only help a particular number of my patients. I may take care of 10 patients per day as a clinician – but as a scientist, I work out the research behind the disease and I can help far more people – possibly 10 million, or even 10 billion. I think that’s the motivation that pushes me to be a scientist as my current career. I just want to help people.

Why neuroscience?

I was specifically interested in neuroscience as the brain has such control: it’s the centre of the body. There are far more aspects to the brain that we have no idea about. I thought, okay, if I want to be a scientist, I want to work with the most challenging part, which is the brain. That’s the reason why I chose to be a PhD student in Professor Perry Bartlett’s lab, and do research on the brain and neurogenesis.

What does your research look at?

My research looks at EphA4 – the molecule which identifies as the modifier of motor neurone disease. In our lab we have been continually working on this molecule, and we found that if we block the function of this molecule, the patients with spinal cord injury will recover better. Considering there is a commonality between spinal cord injury and motor neurone disease, we thought we could possibly transfer the inhibitor of EphA4 from spinal cord injury to motor neuron disease, and many other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis disease.

What is the function of EphA4 normally?

In our normal life, when we are still natal, we are developing our brain. The function of EphA4 helps our brain set up the normal bonding between different parts of the brain. It is also the cue to tell our body where the nerve cell should go when we have nerve growth. If EphA4 is expressed in a particular region, that is where the nerves won’t go, so it’s a kind of guidance cue, which is very interesting. In motor neurone disease, we don’t know why behaviour performance is improved when we inhibit the function of EphA4. Our results indicate EphA4 is possibly linked with cell survival and death – as you know, the most famous characterisation of motor neurone disease is gradual motor neurone death. So we think that when we block the function of EPHA4, it will actually help the motor neurone survival.

A couple of years ago the ice bucket challenge was very big for ALS and motor neurone disease. Did that impact your research specifically?

Yes, definitely. It was a very impressive moment. It happened in the second year of my PhD study, which was a very confusing period for me. None of my experiments were working with a lot of inactive results, far more than positive results, so when Perry asked me to join the Ice Bucket Challenge I was reluctant. However, after participating in the challenge, I saw a lot of scientists work with me, and a lot of famous people fight for the disease. I also saw a lot of patients who struggled with normal life and suffered a lot of pain, and so at that moment I was just thinking okay, my painful from the science cannot match their painful, and that motivated me to overcome the self-doubt. The Ice Bucket Challenge gave a lot of money specific to motor neurone disease, and that’s fantastic. It also raised the sense of the public value, so a lot of people know what this disease is and how bad it is. It was a really big moment in my life.

Where to from here?

We need more evidence to clarify the situation, and clarify the function of EPHA4. There’s still a lot that’s unknown, but that’s the amazing part. That’s research. You have to know what people don’t know before. That’s a beautiful part of science.


By Zoe McDonald

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