Kezia Dugdale: Gordon’s vital legacy could be lost to Brexit

Gordon Aikman was a tireless campaigner for MND research before his death. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
Gordon Aikman was a tireless campaigner for MND research before his death. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
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EDINBURGH University has been at the centre of life in our city for nearly 450 years. It has shaped the past – playing a leading role in the Enlightenment, educating 23 Nobel Prize winners, and igniting the creativity of history-makers like Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It is shaping our present with advances in stem cell research thanks to Dolly the sheep and the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2012.

And it can shape our future too.

Today, some of the greatest minds from across the globe come to the university to take part in cutting-edge research.

One of my first jobs was as a ­welfare adviser at the university, ­helping young students adjust to life in the city. I met many people with the potential to change our future.

One young man I met was Gordon Aikman, who became a close friend. He died last year after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of just 31, but not before he raised more than £600,000 for research into the terminal illness.

A group of his closest friends have promised to keep fundraising until we hit the £1 million target and we’ll take another huge step towards that with a dinner at Prestonfield House this week to mark four years since the start of his campaign.

That money has allowed the charity MND Scotland to invest more in ­finding a cure for future generations.

Already, one researcher the charity is funding at Edinburgh University has made a discovery which could open a whole new field of research into MND and ultimately unlock new treatments.

The last time I saw Gordon was at the Euan MacDonald Centre, which is based at the university and brings together 200 researchers to improve the lives of people living with MND and other related, often neurological conditions.

By having all the data and DNA samples in one place, Edinburgh is now in a prime position to attract ­clinical drug trials.

Incredibly, despite the amazing work that takes place at the university in the city and in labs across Scotland, the last MND drug trial to come to Scotland was almost 20 years ago.

I support MND Scotland’s desire to change that and bring trials to labs here in Scotland – trials which could eventually change lives across the world. Wouldn’t it be great if ­Edinburgh was the base for this work?

One day, maybe, we will be able add curing MND to the list of historical achievements at the city’s ancient university.

But a research revolution in Edinburgh and Scotland can’t happen without funding, and without input from the pharmaceutical industry, the Scottish Government and the UK Government.

There is one major element of UK Government policy which poses a risk: Brexit.

Today, thanks to modern technology, drug trials can operate across borders. An EU-wide clinical trials portal and database has been set up which helps ensure the efficiency of trials by creating a single entry point for the submission of applications and a database of results.

It is absolutely vital that the UK remains part of this portal when we leave the EU, but I fear it is nowhere near the top of Theresa May’s to-do list as she grapples with how to ­satisfy her divided party and pursues an economy-wrecking Brexit. The ­university has a new principal in the form of Peter Mathieson, who arrives from Hong Kong, to take the reigns from the long-serving and much-loved Tim O’Shea.

His job is to maintain and grow Edinburgh’s reputation as a world leading institution. An economic driver for our city and country and a place where science delivers hope. As a physician first and foremost himself, I’m sure he’ll relish the prospect to race fellow countries in the hunt for a cure to diseases like MND.

Yet his first task is to fight against any barriers which could stop Edinburgh performing a life-changing role as we search for the cures of tomorrow.