Brain biology points to new treatments for MS and addiction

Research Lives: Prof Keith Murphy, Professor of Neuropharmacology, UCD

You are a neuropharmacologist, what do you do?

As a neuropharmacologist, I carry out biological research to find new and better ways of treating disease, and the "neuro" refers to my focus on the brain. My Neurotherapeutics Research Group in UCD is focused on understanding what normally goes on in our brains, and which part of that complex jigsaw breaks down in illness.

We are looking at the biology of illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and addiction, in order to find new ways of treating people with those conditions.

Why the focus on the brain?

Many of the drugs that we currently use to treat brain conditions have been in use clinically for decades, and there is a lot of room for improvement.

In the last 10-15 years, science has gained a much deeper understanding of how the brain works and how drugs work on the brain, and my group aims to use that knowledge to design new drug strategies to help patients.

What have you been working on recently?

We are very excited to have identified two potential new drug treatments that we are bringing forward into clinical trials. One is a psychedelic drug we think may help people to overcome addiction, and the other is a drug that we think can help repair damage caused by multiple sclerosis – there was a big slice of luck finding that drug.

That is mind-blowing – a psychedelic drug for addiction?

When a person is exposed to an addictive substance such as cocaine or heroin, over time it changes how some brain circuitry works, and it also creates a memory of feeling good while on that substance. These changes in brain function create a drive to seek out and take more of the drug. We have found a psychedelic agent that we think could help overcome this “perfect storm” of brain changes, helping a person break an addiction.

And what was the lucky break that led to the potential new drug for MS?

We were looking at memory loss in people with multiple sclerosis, and we asked if perhaps adding a memory-supporting drug to the treatment could help. When we looked at the effects of that drug, we saw that it repairs the type of damage that MS causes to the insulation of nerve cells. We didn’t expect that, but we were very happy to have discovered it.

And what now?

We are in the process of getting both of those discoveries into clinical trials in humans now. We have set up two spin-out companies to help with that process. For me it is really important that we try to translate our scientific findings into something meaningful for patients, which has become a big focus of our work.

Has Covid-19 affected your research?

I think it has affected everyone’s research and we are no exception. With all credit to our UCD Conway Institute management, their commitment to biomedical research ensured that all necessary resources were made available to facilitate the safe continuation of laboratory activities.

The current situation has shown us so clearly how important it is to maintain research into diseases and continue the development of new and better treatments.

Between leading a research group and lecturing you are busy. Do you take a break?

I think it is essential to maintain a healthy work-life balance and stay active. Sadly my footballing days are behind me now, but I find that going for a long run is a great way to switch off from work.