Rubika Balendra and Ratko Radakovic win the ENCALS Young Investigator Award 2024

1 July 2024

During the ENCALS meeting 2024 in Stockholm, Sweden, Prof. Ammar Al-Chalabi awarded the ENCALS Young Investigator Award to two young and bright researchers; Dr. Rubika Balendra received the gold medal and Dr. Ratko Radakovic received the silver medal for their outstanding research in ALS.

During the award ceremony Prof. Ammar Al-Chalabi, as chair of the ENCALS Award Committee, praised both Rubika and Ratko for their contribution to ALS research. They are trained in different fields of expertise; Rubika is a clinician scientist in translational research and Ratko’s expertise is clinical psychology.

Dr. Rubika Balendra – University College London and National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, UK – Gold medalist

Rubika studied medicine at the University of Cambridge and University College London. She trained as an NIHR Academic Foundation Doctor at the University of Cambridge, and subsequently as an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow at King’s College London. Meeting people with ALS led to her desire to focus her research in this field. Her initial research centred on improving clinical care through use of an ALS staging system. Rubika used multicentre patient databases to validate disease staging and demonstrate its potential utility as an adjunctive measure in clinical trials.

This was followed by a PhD funded by the Leonard Wolfson Experimental Neurology Centre and the Wellcome Trust, and postdoctoral work as an NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer, with funding from the Academy of Medical Sciences. During this time Rubika investigated molecular mechanisms and therapeutic strategies in ALS/FTD caused by C9orf72 mutations. She performed a remarkable series of experiments to investigate dipeptide repeat protein binding to RNA, highlighting a novel disease mechanism. In another project she treated stem cell-derived neurons and an in vivo Drosophila model with small molecules targeting C9orf72 repeat RNA G-quadruplexes, demonstrating amelioration of key disease pathologies. She is committed to translating findings from basic science into developing innovative approaches to treat ALS and FTD.

Dr. Ratko Radakovic – Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, UK – Silver medalist

Ratko’s first work disentangled the differing behavioral and cognitive contributions (dimensions or subtypes) to the clinical syndrome of apathy. This led to the development the Dimensional Apathy Scale (DAS). In ALS apathy may be masked by physical disability and the DAS was designed specifically to distinguish between inactivity related to physical problems from lack of motivation.

Through his research he demonstrated that in ALS there was a distinct profile of apathy, in which ALS patients had difficulties specifically with generating and initiating ideas and that differed from other neurodegenerative disorders namely different types of dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. He also linked cognition to behavior in ALS and showed that this type of apathy was related to the verbal fluency deficit we have known about for several years, both involving impairment in the generation of ideas. This challenged the proposal that within ALS apathy was only a manifestation of depression as a reaction to the diagnosis and placed apathy clearly within the spectrum of cognitive and behavioral changes in ALS.

His research culminated into a theoretical perspective on apathy as a syndrome – the Dimensional Apathy Framework. This contribution is at the crossroads between ALS research, neuropsychology in neurodegenerative disease and cognitive psychology and therefore will be influential across disciplines and fields of research.

The ENCALS Young Investigator Award

The ENCALS Young Investigator Award was designed to recognize the brightest and best young scientists in ALS and is awarded yearly at the ENCALS meeting for outstanding research. It is judged by the ENCALS Award Committee, an international panel of experts lead by prof. Ammar Al-Chalabi. Criteria include any or all of novelty, challenge to existing ideas about ALS, results with patient benefit, and impact on our understanding of ALS.

If you want to apply for the ENCALS Young Investigator Award, keep an eye on our website. The next opportunity for applications will open at the beginning of 2025.