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Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Dementia institute appoints Belgian expert to lead hunt for treatment

Written by The Press Association

A renowned Belgian neuroscientist is to head the new £250 million UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI) which will put Britain at the cutting edge of science aimed at combating brain diseases.

Professor Bart De Strooper (pictured) has spoken of his hopes for a "paradigm shift" in the way neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's are diagnosed and treated.

The professor was appointed director of the Institute after a global search for talent led by the Medical Research Council.

Based at University College London (UCL), he will run a large team of scientists operating from several regional centres across the UK.

The UK DRI, funded by the MRC and dementia charities Alzheimer's Society and Alzheimer's Research UK, is due to start operating towards the end of next year.

It will tackle Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's with a radical joined-up approach to connect researchers working in widely different fields.

Prof De Strooper is currently in charge of the Laboratory for the Research of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Leuven, Belgium.

While genetics and imaging technology have transformed scientists' understanding of what causes Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, there are still no treatments available that can halt or slow their destructive progress.

Prof De Strooper said: "Right now, our understanding of these diseases is not dissimilar to what we knew, or thought we knew, about cancer several decades ago.

"What we need is a paradigm shift in the way we think about dementias. Just as we realised that a whole range of factors is responsible for how cancers occur and progress in an individual, we now need to take a more holistic view of dementia and accept that a wide range of approaches may be needed in order to be successful.

"We have a huge amount of discovery science to do - and I want to see real surprises."

Dementia affects an estimated 835,000 people in the UK, most of whom suffer from Alzheimer's.

The UK DRI will function as a multi-centre network with a "hub" at UCL. Locations of the centres are expected to be announced next spring.

UCL president and provost Professor Michael Arthur said: "We have both the ambition and ability to make a difference and meet the challenge of this most pressing of global public health problems.

"Our vision for a DRI is a truly national asset that facilitates exchanges of ideas, people and resources between groups, disciplines and centres."

Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Alzheimer's Society, said: "We're incredibly excited about what Professor De Strooper will bring to the DRI as the new director given his wealth of experience and bold vision.

"People affected by dementia were at the heart of the decision to put him in post and are very optimistic about this world-leading institute that will transform the treatment, care and prevention of dementia."

Alzheimer's Research UK chief executive Hilary Evans said: "Today is a significant day for the UK DRI, with the vision for a world-leading national institute in dementia research starting to become a reality.

"The UK DRI will become a tour de force for UK dementia science, bolstering existing research efforts through multi-disciplinary approaches that tackle the condition from different angles.

"Alzheimer's Research UK has already worked closely with Prof De Strooper in his role as academic advisor to our UCL-based Drug Discovery Institute and we are delighted he will be leading the work of the UK DRI.

"Sustained high-level funding for research is vital to drive the advances that will change the lives of people with dementia."

Dementia will soon be controlled just like HIV, says research institute head

Alzheimer's may in some cases be as manageable as HIV/Aids by 2025, the head of Britain's new Dementia Research Institute (DRI) predicts.

Professor Bart De Strooper said he hoped to see a time in the near future when the condition could be stabilised even if it proved impossible to cure.

There is even a chance that the brain could re-wire itself and restore lost mental ability once progress of the disease has been halted, he believes.

Speaking after the announcement of his appointment as director of the £250 million UK DRI, the world-renowned Belgian neuroscientist told the Press Association: "We won't be celebrating in 2025 that dementia is cured, but I hope that by then there will be groups of patients who can be treated in much the same way HIV-Aids is treated today.

"I believe it will happen. I'm very optimistic - the brain is the most plastic organ we have. If you could stabilise the disease at an early stage it might be possible to regain part of the function that seems to be lost."

Prof De Strooper, who is putting together a multi-disciplinary team of doctors, biologists, engineers and data specialists working from centres across the UK, said he hoped to see "real surprises".

He added: "I'm a scientist so I don't look into crystal balls but I would put a lot of money on saying that the next generation will have a completely different view of dementia disorders.

"In just the same way Aids in the 1970s and 80s was seen as a terrible doom or punishment of the gods, but is now manageable and treatable. Cancer has gone through a similar process - the way we look at cancer today is quite different from what it was a generation ago.

"I think we are already further on than many people believe."

In a key shift to previous approaches he intends to broaden research beyond the "amyloid hypothesis" on which so much work up until now has focused.

The hypothesis places clumps of sticky protein fragments in the brain known as beta-amyloid at the heart of Alzheimer's.

Beta-amyloid "plaques" are recognised as a key hallmark of the disease, but precisely what their role is remains unclear.

Prof De Strooper said: "The amyloid hypothesis is an old hypothesis from 25 years ago. Since then we have acquired so much information that can't fit into the simple amyloid hypothesis.

"It would be an over-simplification to reduce Alzheimer's to amyloid. The main problem is not that the hypothesis is untrue, but it is very old-fashioned, simplistic and linear.

"Dementia is likely to be much more complicated, in a similar way to cancer, which we now know is caused and driven by a multitude of factors. I hope progress in tackling dementia will go faster than it did with cancer.

"At the Institute we will approach dementia as a complicated, multi-factorial disease. Inflammation, biochemistry, cellular changes - all these things are likely to have an influence.

"It's very difficult to imagine how you would replace parts of the brain that are gone but if we understand the process better it might be possible to interfere when the process is at the start. If we could step in 10 years before massive damage to the brain occurs, it would be a very nice thing."

However, he was in no way dismissive of the new wave of amyloid-targeting drugs now undergoing clinical trials.

So far none of these drugs have proved their ability to alter progress of the disease in large-scale patient studies.

Last month, scientists suffered a serious setback with poor results from solanezumab, an antibody drug designed to halt the build-up of beta-amyloid, in a Phase III trial.

Prof De Strooper said: "People see the failure of these drugs, but I think they have a very good rationale. In a couple of years it's possible that we'll be able to define what categories of patients these therapies will work for.

"It all boils down to increasing our understanding of this disease area. Currently we have a very limited number of drug targets based on the beta-amyloid hypothesis.The good news is that we're learning the whole way through these trials."

The accent on bringing together talent from different sides of science would see mixtures of experts working together in the same team, he said.

Prof De Strooper added: "My priority in the first year will be to improve our mechanistic understanding of the disease. We'll be taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem.

"Modern medicine is already inherently multi-disciplinary, taking in areas such as genetics, bio-informatics and imaging. I'll be talking to engineers, medical doctors, biologists. We'll be moving from cell cultures to humans and back again."

He stressed that the Institute would not just be looking at Alzheimer's but would investigate the whole range of neurodegenerative diseases, including disorders such as Parkinson's and Huntington's. It would also search for common factors linking the conditions.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2016, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Medical Research Council / PA Wire.