This year Alzheimer’s Research UK is pioneering an innovative approach to funding new research. This approach will encourage experts from various scientific fields to apply their skills in research to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. This funding strategy is called an Interdisciplinary Research Grant (IRG) and we want to use them to bring new ideas and skills into dementia research.
Our Interdisciplinary Research Grants are specially designed to allow scientists who have never worked in dementia before to break into the field.
Our IRGs are specially designed to allow scientists who have never worked in dementia before to break into the field. They offer the opportunity for these researchers to team up with a dementia expert and together they will tackle the complexities of dementia research. By combining different areas of expertise, researchers can look at old problems from new angles, creating a greater depth of understanding of the risks, causes and mechanisms of dementia. We can use this knowledge to improve diagnosis and to find suitable targets for developing effective treatments.
The adage that two heads are better than one may be clichéd but it also rings true, especially in research, which has a great deal to gain from strong collaborations between scientists. Imagine you were an expert chef but had never baked a cake. Working with a great baker would ensure that your chef’s skills would combine with the baker’s knowledge to make a very tasty dessert! The same principle applies to research – experts in dementia may not have comprehensive knowledge of a technique if it is not routinely used in their studies. Bringing a specialist in this technique on board ensures that the best possible resources are being used. This is especially important with a condition as complex as dementia which has different genetic and environmental causes, many of which are not fully understood.
There are currently no treatments available that can prevent or cure dementia. Our IRGs present a unique opportunity to address this situation.
Who has received IRGs?
Alzheimer’s Research UK has so far awarded funding to three pioneering IRG projects, totalling over £600,000.
Scientist: Dr Jason Berwick, Senior Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Sheffield.
Dementia Specialist: Dr Stephen Wharton, an expert in how Alzheimer’s affects the brain.
Amount awarded: £248,000.
Research Focus: Dr Berwick studies whether problems with blood vessels in the brain can cause damage to nerve cells. He believes that one of the mechanisms behind the development of Alzheimer’s disease may be a lack of blood flow to certain areas of the brain, meaning that these areas are deprived of oxygen.
Why is this important? This research will investigate whether measuring blood flow to the brain can be used to detect whether someone is at risk of developing dementia before symptoms show. Identifying those at risk early will allow people to access the support and information they need as soon as possible. It also offers the opportunity to get involved in research aimed at finding effective treatments or improving diagnosis.
Scientist: Dr Jonathan Morris, Lecturer in Cancer Studies at King’s College London.
Dementia Specialist: Dr Diane Hanger, a neuroscientist who focuses on the tau protein.
Amount awarded: £209,000.
Research Focus: Dr Morris conducts his research on a group of proteins called PSK kinases. These proteins are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. However, PSK kinases can have an effect on the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein tau. In Alzheimer’s, tau forms sticky clumps which are deposited inside brain cells. Deposits of sticky tau are one of the key factors that lead to brain cell death and memory loss in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Why is this important? The team hopes to untangle the biological mechanisms that cause tau to form these sticky clumps and whether PSK kinases could be a suitable target for new treatments.
Scientist: Prof Clare Bryant, Veterinary Immunologist at the University of Cambridge.
Dementia Specialist: Prof David Klenerman, a specialist in biological imaging.
Amount awarded: £209,000
Research Focus: This project will use advanced imaging techniques to detail exactly how the brain’s immune cells are affected by Alzheimer’s. This will help to identify some of the underlying biological mechanisms behind disease development.
Why is this important? It is increasingly clear that the immune system plays a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. This research will greatly add to our understanding of this and will be used to identify possible mechanisms to target with new treatments. Etanercept, a drug which affects the immune system is being investigated to see whether it may help people with Alzheimer’s. Research such as this will give a better understanding of the types of treatments that may benefit those with dementia.
Other ways to work together
Alzheimer’s Research UK is also fostering collaborations in other ways. We have increased investment in our Research Network across the UK. This extra funding will help share ideas and knowledge between dementia researchers and the wider scientific community. We have also put funds into the Dementia Consortium, an initiative designed to improve connections between university researchers and pharmaceutical companies with the aim of identifying new targets for treatments. Additionally, the charity is creating a unique network of Drug Discovery Institutes to find new treatments and bring them to people with dementia as soon as possible.
The more different ideas and areas of expertise we can bring in to dementia research, the greater understanding we will have of the condition and the greater the chance of defeating it once and for all.