Media Releases

University of Toronto researcher first to open lab notes in real time

February 26, 2016

Toron­to, ON — Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to researcher Rachel Hard­ing will be the first known bio­med­ical researcher to wel­come the world to review her lab notes in real time. The post-doc­tor­al fel­low with U of T’s Struc­tur­al Genomics Con­sor­tium (SGC) is also explain­ing her find­ings to the gen­er­al pub­lic through her blog. She hopes her open approach will accel­er­ate research into Huntington’s dis­ease.

“This should dri­ve the process faster than work­ing alone,” Hard­ing says. “By shar­ing my notes, I hope that oth­er sci­en­tists will cri­tique my work, col­lab­o­rate and share data in the ear­ly stages of research.” Her research at SGC is fund­ed by CHDI Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it drug-devel­op­ment orga­ni­za­tion exclu­sive­ly ded­i­cat­ed to Huntington’s dis­ease. Both orga­ni­za­tions aim to accel­er­ate research by mak­ing it open and col­lab­o­ra­tive.

Her approach is intend­ed to lever­age the expe­ri­ence of a com­mu­ni­ty of sci­en­tists. Indi­vid­ual researchers often still work in rel­a­tive iso­la­tion and then pub­lish only their pos­i­tive dis­cov­er­ies, usu­al­ly years after the exper­i­ments were actu­al­ly done. Thus, sci­en­tists often pur­sue sim­i­lar ideas in par­al­lel and miss many oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn from each other’s mis­takes.

She has start­ed by pub­lish­ing raw data and play-by-play details of her first effort on the CERN open dig­i­tal repos­i­to­ry Zen­o­do. She also posts reg­u­lar updates on her blog Lab Scrib­bles, where she includes an exper­i­men­tal sum­ma­ry writ­ten in lay terms.

Hard­ing hopes this will speed up research into Huntington’s dis­ease, which despite decades of effort researchers have yet to uncov­er the mech­a­nisms behind the neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­or­der. It’s known that a muta­tion in the hunt­ingtin gene leads to pro­gres­sive cog­ni­tive decline and phys­i­cal dete­ri­o­ra­tion, usu­al­ly begin­ning between the ages of 35 and 50. But, the exact struc­ture of the hunt­ingtin pro­tein encod­ed by this gene remains a mys­tery. Under­stand­ing what the pro­tein looks like will give insight into how it caus­es dis­ease and poten­tial­ly reveal ways of reduc­ing its harm.

“This is a very large pro­tein and dif­fi­cult to study. It is sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er than most oth­er pro­teins in the cell,” says Hard­ing. It also has an espe­cial­ly com­pli­cat­ed struc­ture with few sim­i­lar­i­ties to oth­er known pro­teins, which makes learn­ing by com­par­i­son more dif­fi­cult.

Con­sid­er­ing the chal­lenges and the high stakes, Hard­ing will take all the help she can get. She hopes that by open­ing her note­book to the research com­mu­ni­ty, she will open new chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. She also invites peo­ple who aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly sci­en­tists, includ­ing patient com­mu­ni­ties, to get involved in the process.

“This is what research is real­ly like,” says Hard­ing. “It’s not so much about big break­throughs and pol­ished results, but about incre­men­tal­ly get­ting clos­er to an answer. I think by being more open about our research we can all learn how to do the exper­i­ments bet­ter.”

This same com­mu­ni­ty-based phi­los­o­phy under­lies CHDI’s dri­ve to be a “col­lab­o­ra­tive enabler,” bring­ing sci­en­tists from diverse dis­ci­plines togeth­er and shar­ing resources and exper­tise to advance Huntington’s dis­ease research. It’s also why the SGC pro­vides open access to an array of data and reagents – from chem­i­cal probes that enable drug dis­cov­ery in can­cer research to raw data on hunt­ingtin.

“By pro­vid­ing access to raw data as well as the enabling research tools, we will help the com­mu­ni­ty per­form more robust exper­i­ments, which will accel­er­ate the drug dis­cov­ery process and poten­tial­ly the devel­op­ment of new med­i­cines,” says Aled Edwards, a Pro­fes­sor in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Depart­ment of Med­ical Bio­physics and Direc­tor and CEO of the SGC.

Hard­ing announced she was open­ing her lab notes to the pub­lic at CHDI’s 11th Annu­al HD Ther­a­peu­tics Con­fer­ence, which was held this week.


For more infor­ma­tion or to arrange inter­views please con­tact:

Hei­di Singer
Office of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
U of T Med­i­cine
Tel: 416.978.5811