Cara Croft PHD: Race Against Dementia Fellow, University of Florida and UCL

Dr Croft will be joining UCL from the University of Florida and will explore how genetic risk factors contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease and whether these genetic pathways could be targeted with future Alzheimer’s drugs.

Cara completed an undergraduate master’s degree in neuroscience at the University of Manchester, before embarking on an NC3Rs-funded Neuroscience PhD studentship with Dr. Wendy Noble and Dr. Diane Hanger at King’s College London, UK.
This studentship enabled Cara to make steps into the Alzheimer’s disease (AD) field, where she worked on understanding mechanisms underlying the release and spread of the protein tau both in healthy brains and in AD brains.

Prior to taking up the RAD Fellowship, Cara had been working as a postdoctoral research associate in Dr. Todd Golde’s laboratory at the University of Florida.

"The Race Against Dementia fellowship uniquely allows me to work alongside some of the best researchers in the UK at University College London and the US at the University of Florida as well as from industry. This is a rare opportunity as a research fellow to be able to work with the people that I want to, investigate my own ideas, and experience research in different countries and both academic/industry environments. Dementia knows no borders and our research shouldn’t either. This fellowship will enable me to develop international collaborations for the future and I truly feel we will only make steps against dementia if we are working together globally."

Cara Croft PHD

Dr Cara Croft shares her Fellowship grant application video presenting her research proposal, first shown to the ARUK Grant Review Board panel in June 2019.

Published April 29th 2020
Dr Cara Croft discusses how research work has continued in spite of the global pandemic and the loss of access to lab facilities.

Cara Croft PhD progress update: September 2019-September 2020

Presented to RAD Board of Trustees, Ambassadors and Scientific Advisors on 8th October 2020.

Institution: University College London and University of Florida

Title: Investigating Genetic Risk in Dementia

Overview of Research:

Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are some of the most common causes of dementia leading to loss of memory, thoughts, motor skills and other symptoms which affect day to day living. It is also known that a build-up of certain proteins in brain cells are closely linked to these symptoms and the overall health of brain cells. Tau protein build-up is heavily implicated in Alzheimer’s disease as well as frontotemporal dementia. Whereas the synuclein protein builds-up in Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies.

Research has also identified many changes in the genetic code which are associated with the development of the diseases that cause dementia. Many of these genetic changes have been found but never studied in depth and may lead to new dementia treatments.

Dr. Croft’s Race Against Dementia fellowship aims to understand how some of these genetic changes affect this protein build-up and brain cell health. She will develop new technologies to help understand how these genes affect protein build-up and brain cell health and function. Using these new technologies with brain in a petri dish models and animal models with features of disease should help uncover whether new therapies should target these changes in the genetic code or protein build up.

Progress update: September 2019 – September 2020

For her initial experiments, Dr. Croft uses small sections of brain tissue that she keeps alive in petri dishes in the lab to study these genes. She is using sophisticated gene editing techniques to increase and decrease the genetic risk factors into the brain tissue. Dr. Croft’s expertise lies in being able to introduce genes into this ‘brain in a dish’ system using a well-studied group of non-infectious viruses. To study the genes on the build-up of protein Dr. Croft has already created many different combinations of genes to be inserted into the brain tissue, using these viruses as vectors.

Another aspect of the research project is developing other virus tools which will be used to study how these genes may lead to problems within brain cells. In the first year, this is where Dr. Croft has made the most progress developing these tools and then testing how they work in the ‘brain in the dish’ systems. One of these tools enables the tracking of tau protein build-up over several weeks using advanced microscopy. This work has been submitted for publication at a leading scientific journal where her results revealed that at early stages the cells building up disease-related tau protein are able to clear it away but more slowly than healthier cells. This highlights the possibility that early in disease progression, if we can understand how this clearance happens or speed it up, it may be a new drug target.

Dr. Croft has expanded her team and recruited and trained two enthusiastic research assistants who job share a 40-hour position that will help with some of the experiments in the project. The fact that this fellowship enabled the employment of other staff beyond the fellow means that the two research assistants who are aspiring physician scientists are learning the RAD way to do research from Dr. Croft and will also likely become future leaders in the field or a related field.

Other Research-related Activities:

Aside from her research, Dr. Croft has been keeping herself busy through various research-related activities supporting her growth as a researcher and scientist. She peer reviews for several funders and research journals in the US and Europe, acted as a research session chair at the 2020 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference and co-chaired a University of Florida Neuromedicine Research Seminar Series. She also works to support other first generation students at the University of Florida regarding research, careers and academic affairs, and supervises and mentors undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Florida.

The impact of COVID-19:

While lab work had to pause, Dr. Croft was able to continue her project whilst working remotely.  Even when she is physically in the lab, a lot of work is done on the computer which has continued – image analysis, image/other data quantifications, reading of literature, discussing this with others, presenting research to own lab group and outside of group (including large international online conferences), preparation of figures for papers, writing data papers, literature reviews and scientific commentary, management of data and lab resources, and design and research of the viral tools.

RAD Developmental Programs:

On top of her research work, Dr. Croft has given presentations to Red Bull, McLaren, Dyson and Formula One and other scientists, and parties interested in dementia. She has Visited Red Bull Racing to gain insights into workings of a Formula One team. Other group activities included a virtual workshos ‘Performance at the Limit: Lessons from Formula 1 Motor Racing’ identifying strengths and weaknesses of dementia research and how to take leads from F1 with Professor Mark Jenkins. Dr. Croft has also received communications training with Lee Bowman from Kingstree Group.

Dr. Croft has also valued the opportunities provided through Hintsa performance coaching and Ignition Performance personal leadership training. The Hintsa experience has been particularly valuable to remain focused and high performing during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Dr. Croft also participated in a twitter takeover to give insights into her research for RAD followers and met with Shaheen Sloan (a carer for her mum with FTD and ARUK/RAD champion) to discuss her work.

Publications:

Dr. Croft continues to share her research work with others through publications. Her most recent work exploring tau protein build-up and clearance is currently under review at a leading scientific journal and will be shared as soon as it is published. She has also published work where she contributed to a method to cost-effectively develop and use viral tools in research – Goodwin et al., 2020. She has also published a review article discussing different ‘brain slice in a petri dish’ models to study the pathologies related to dementia – Croft et al., 2019.

Conference and Local Presentations:

Dr. Croft enjoys disseminating her work to other scientists worldwide and has been taking advantage of the use of online seminars and conferences to share her work more globally. Since the global lockdowns of March 2020 due to COVID-19, Dr. Croft has delivered several online lectures to other scientists. Prior to this she was also able to present her research in person at the Tau2020 conference in Washington DC.

 

Published 28th October 2020

Cara Croft PhD awarded the McKnight Leadership Award

Race Against Dementia are delighted to announce that RAD Fellow, Cara Croft PhD, has been awarded a McKnight Leadership Award recognising her as a rising leader in the field of dementia research. The award provides an additional $2,500 towards her research as well as the opportunity to share her research with the McKnight Brain Institute (MBI) members.

The McKnight Leadership Awards, awarded by the McKnight Brain Institute recognise excellence in neuroscience. Cara has been chosen for this award for her achievements in neuroscience research, education and outreach whilst working at the University of Florida in the first year of a Race Against Dementia Fellowship.

Congratulations Cara!

“Being recognized with a McKnight leadership award in the second year of my RAD fellowship is a great achievement made possible by RAD supporting my career development and ambitious global inter-institutional dementia research.

 My research is focussed on understanding how neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease lead to brain cell death and dysfunction. I am particularly interested in determining how known genetic risk factors for these diseases impact upon the development and progression of key disease features.  By learning more about these processes I hope to develop new options for the prevention and treatment of these diseases. Alongside my research I am committed to widening participation of first-generation students in Neuroscience education and research.

At the MBI I am surrounded by established and rising leaders in Neuroscience, so I am honoured to be named as a McKnight leadership award recipient. It is wonderful to be recognized for my contributions to Neuroscience research, education and outreach which have only been achievable due to the supportive and collegiate environment of the MBI and affiliated departments.” Cara Croft PhD