Image shows Bjoern in a lab coat smiling at camera against background of science lab

How my love of flatworms led to a passion for MS research

Hello, I’m Dr Bjoern Neumann, a researcher at the MS Society Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair.

Originally, I come from Werl, a small town in Germany. Before I came to Cambridge for my PhD, I studied biomedicine in a place called Würzburg.

I love spicy foods, I am a passionate football player and fan, enjoy running and reading non-fiction.

Why did you get into MS research?

This is a love story, scientifically and personally.

I’ve always been fascinated by animals that can regenerate parts of themselves. Like planarians (flatworms). If a planarian gets cut in half, each half regrows the part it has lost and you end up with two complete worms. It’s amazing. If these species can do this, why can’t we?

I had planned to do a PhD in a lab in Germany, but my girlfriend was studying in Oxford so I followed her to the UK. When I came across Professor Robin Franklin’s work at the MS Society Cambridge Centre, my interest in cells that can regenerate to repair myelin damage was sparked.

So, I got into MS research because of my love for regeneration biology and for my soon to be wife.

Why is your research important to stopping MS?

I’m studying how getting older affects stem cells in the brain (specifically the cells that can turn into myelin-making cells) and what that means for conditions like MS.

Unfortunately, ageing is not good news for stem cells. So I try to find lifestyle changes and drugs that could stop the effects that ageing has on them. If we could achieve this, our bodies’ natural ability to repair myelin would work much more effectively even as we get older, which is really important for people with MS.

Although this wouldn’t be a cure, it would mean that someone with MS could repair the damage caused by their MS, which would hopefully slow progression.

What's the most exciting thing about your research?

My flatworms! But more seriously, I am a biologist and get excited thinking about the basic principles of regeneration and how cells and organisms age.

We have made some really exciting discoveries recently. Earlier this year we found out it was possible to make stem cells from older rats behave like younger cells by transplanting them into younger rats. And we’ve just published a study showing that a diabetes drug called metformin can reverse stem cell ageing in rats.

If you had all the money in the world, what would it mean for your research?

Are you offering, where do I sign up for this?

Big ideas and progress require big investment and risks. Football clubs invest millions into the best managers, players, and infrastructure to win trophies. Science is no different. More money means access to the newest technologies, the best equipment and being able to employ talented scientists to work on a project long-term.

For me, it would mean that I can tackle big problems, think outside the box, and pursue high-risk projects with potentially high rewards. I would love that!

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