The Royal Society is housed just a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square. Its walls are lined with portraits of famous scientists throughout history, from Isaac Newton through to Dorothy Hodgkin, crystallography champion and Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web. This was certainly an inspiring setting for the launch of the Medical Research Council’s UK Dementias Research Platform yesterday.
The Dementias Research Platform UK (DPUK) is a £50 million investment, funded mainly by the Medical Research Council alongside six other partner companies.
‘We need to look below the neck’
Research in animals is really important for understanding the microscopic chain of events that lead to the onset of dementia. But the average laboratory mouse doesn’t smoke. Nor do they have varied diets or different education levels. If we want to gain a broader understanding of the risk factors for dementia, we also need to study people. As one scientist said, ‘understanding changes in the brain requires looking below the neck; appreciating that things that go on in the rest of the body affect brain health’. That’s where these two million ‘cohort’ members come in.
A cohort is a group of people who are followed over a long period of time. By collecting information about what these volunteers eat, how well they did at school and how much they exercise, for example, scientists can begin to unravel the different sorts of lifestyles that may alter dementia risk. The two million study participants come from about 20 different cohorts, some established as far back as 1946. By combining information from all the different studies, we can learn far more.
How lifestyle alters dementia risk isn’t the only interesting question researchers can answer with these large cohorts. Researchers can look at DNA to identify subtle differences in the sequence that can increase or decrease the risk of dementia or alter the progression of the condition. As with the Alzheimer’s Research UK DNA bank, the more samples we collect, the more likely we are to find these differences. All of this information will help researchers to understand how genes and the environment can cause dementia, and hopefully uncover steps to prevent the condition.
How will this help to find a treatment?
DPUK isn’t just about uncovering risk factors. A large part of the project involves the use of stem cells that have been created by reprogramming skin cells from people either with inherited forms of dementia or those who are in the initial stages of the condition. Researchers at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Stem Cell Research Centre will work with similar teams around the country to answer a key question in dementia research; why do nerve cells die and how can we stop it?
In order to find an effective treatment, we need to be able to diagnose dementia accurately. This throws up a recurring question about the benefit of early diagnosis. Would you want to know if you had a form of dementia many years before the onset of symptoms? It’s a tricky but important question. We need people who are at the earliest stages of the condition – before they even have symptoms – to hunt for small changes in blood and in brain scans. Researchers are looking for anything that signals that a person is likely to go on to develop dementia. These people can then be given the opportunity to get involved in clinical trials for new treatments that are likely to have the greatest effect when the brain is still reasonably healthy. Read more about the clues scientists can find in blood and other biological samples.
The DPUK will only succeed if information learnt in each of the different experiments can be shared between researchers working on other aspects of the condition. Lessons learnt from the genetic studies can be tested in stem cells. Interesting biological molecules unearthed in stem cell models can be studied in humans using brain scans. The results will be accessible to all dementia researchers, allowing new questions to be asked using the same data and discoveries to be made faster.