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Dr Alan Burns
30 Guildford Street
  • Senior Lecturer
  • ICH Development Bio & Cancer Prog
  • UCL GOS Institute of Child Health
  • Faculty of Pop Health Sciences

After obtaining a PhD at the University of Ulster, I took up a post-doctoral position at the University of Nevada with Prof. Kent Sanders and Prof. Sean Ward to investigate the physiological roles of Interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) within the gastrointestinal tract. We were the first group to show that different populations of ICC are involved in electrical pacemaking within the gut, and in mediating neurotransmission between enteric nerves and gut smooth muscle. During my time in Nevada I became more interested in the development of the enteric nervous system (ENS) and subsequently moved to the laboratory of Prof. Nicole Le Douarin at the Institut d’Embryologie Cellulaire et Moléculaire in Paris to pursue this work. Following this post-doctoral training, concentrating on the development of hindgut innervation, I moved to UCL Institute of Child Health as a PI in 2001 to take advantage of the local expertise in the clinical aspects of ENS developmental disorders, which are treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I established a cross discipline ENS Development and Disorders Group that is now co-led by consultant gastroenterologist and clinician scientist Dr Nikhil Thapar and focuses on gaining a better undertanding of normal and abnormal ENS development, and on the development of a stem cell replacement therapy for the treatment of congenital ENS defects.    

Research Summary

The overall aim of my work is to better understand, and establish novel treatments for, disorders/diseases resulting from abnormal development of the neuromuscular components of the gastrointestinal tract. Normal gut contraction and function requires the coordinated interaction of enteric neurons and glia, interstitial cells of Cajal, and smooth muscle cells. Defects in the development of these cell types results in a range of commonly occurring gut disorders/diseases including Hirschsprung disease (aganglionic hindgut), intestinal pseudo-obstruction, and other motility defects. We take a number of approaches, in collaboration with groups locally, nationally and internationally to:

(i) investigate the mechanisms controlling enteric nervous system (ENS) formation from neural crest-derived precursors

(ii) determine, by functional analysis, whether candidate genes identified in enteric neuropathies and myopathies, are actually disease causing genes

(iii) develop novel stem cell-based therapies for aganglionic gut disorders such as Hirschsprung disease

(iv) use tissue engineering approaches to manufacture replacements for diseased gut.

Teaching Summary

I am co-director of the MRes in Biomedicine course which is based at UCL Institute of Child Health. This is a comprehensive, one year laboratory research orientated course designed to train and equip students prior to entering PhD or higher degree training.  Tasks involve organizing and helping to deliver a three month taught module. This is followed by placing and assessing students in a three month mini project and six month maxi project in areas such as birth defects research, stem cell research, infection and immunity, childhood development and metabolic defects and cancer. I also teach at post-graduate level on the  MSc in Molecular Medicine (UCL Institute of Child Health),  MSc in Prenatal Genetics and Fetal Medicine (UCL), MSc in Paediatric Gastroenterology (Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry), and at undergraduate level for the BSc Cellular and Developmental Neurobiology (UCL).

01-JAN-1999 – 31-MAY-2001 Lecturer Biomedical Sciences University of Ulster, United Kingdom
01-JUN-1996 – 31-DEC-1998 Post-doctoral Fellow Institue d'Embryologie Cellulaire et Moléculaire CNRS et College de France, France
01-JAN-1994 – 31-MAY-1996 Post-doctoral Researcher Physiology and Cell Biology University of Nevada, Reno, United States
Academic Background
1993 DPhil Doctor of Philosophy University of Ulster
1989 BSc Bachelor of Science – Biological Sciences not elsewhere classified University of Ulster
1987 HND Higher National Diploma – Applied Biology University of Ulster
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