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£16m dementia research platform launched

Published on 19/06/14 at 08:20am
Dementia image
Damage to the brain cells that gets worse over time causes the symptoms of dementia

The Medical Research Council (MRC) has launched the UK Dementias Research Platform (UKDP), a £16 million public-private partnership set up to speed research into various neurodegenerative conditions.

The idea is to look at illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, seeking ways of earlier detection, improved treatment and prevention “by looking not just at what is going wrong in the brain, but at the brain in the context of the whole body”.

Resources to achieve this will include scientists from eight UK universities - Cardiff, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Imperial College London, Newcastle, Oxford, Swansea and University College London - and more than two million volunteers over 50.

At present a standard research approach in Alzheimer’s R&D is to use transgenic mice – that is, mice with inserted faulty human genes – but this method was rubbished in a paper published last month.

Although it has produced hundreds of treatments that have been successful in animals - last year it was suggested that MRC scientists could have reached a ‘turning point’ using mice, for example - they have not worked in humans.

The UKDP will instead use data – linking medical and lifestyle information from the largest group of participants in dementias research to emerging biological data from genetic studies, brain imaging and cognitive testing. 

This could provide a better understanding of who might be at risk of dementia, possible triggers that lead to disease, and what might speed up or slow down its progression.

In turn that means researchers will be able to identify biomarkers which should lead to the creation of more accurate clinical trials.

“We now know that neurodegeneration can be linked to changes taking place in parts of the body seemingly unrelated to the brain and many years before dementia is diagnosed,” says Cardiff University’s Dr John Gallacher, who is director of the UKDP.

These can include inflammation or infection in a completely different organ which may be related to the development of dementia or to accelerating its onset.

“So it’s imperative that we look at the different stages of disease development,” Gallacher goes on. “People who are yet to develop dementia, those who are known to be at risk of developing it and those who are already in the early stages of the disease.”

Several companies from the pharma industry are also involved: AstraZeneca subsidiary MedImmune, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen R&D, Imperial’s Ixico spin-off, biomarkers specialist SomaLogic and biotech firm Araclon. 

UKDP was announced by health secretary Jeremy Hunt at the 2014 Global Dementia Legacy Event in London, a follow-up to the 2013 G8 Dementia Summit.

Adam Hill

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