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Exciting new phase in the UK Dementia Research Institute

Dr Laura PhippsKirsty MaraisClaire LucasRobin BrisbourneKaty StubbsEd PinchesGlyn Morris

In May 2016 we committed £50m to support the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI), our biggest financial commitment to a single initiative in our 25-year history. After an international search, Prof Bart De Strooper was named as Director of the UK DRI in late 2016, and UCL was announced as the hub of the institute activity and operational headquarters.

This week, the locations of the five other UK DRI centres were revealed, with the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and King’s College London all set to join the national institute alongside UCL. Across these six centres, 27 innovative work programmes will scrutinise dementia from all angles – from the role of the brain’s immune system and blood supply, to the effect of sleep and bacteria in the gut.

We caught up with Prof Bart De Strooper to hear about the exciting initiative and to find out about his vision for the UK DRI as its Director.

What is the aim of the UK DRI?

The UK DRI is centred on the need for innovative discovery science to unlock our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the development and progression of dementia. The institute’s research will invigorate the therapeutic pipeline and drive new approaches to diagnosis, treatment, care provision and prevention.

It’s exciting that­ – after a competitive selection process – we now have six leading universities on board to make up the UK DRI. I will be setting a dynamic pace to establish a vibrant, ambitious and interactive UK DRI neuroscience community of up to 400 scientists.

What will the UK DRI bring to dementia research in the UK?

The UK DRI is designed to bolster, rather than replace, current research efforts in the UK. We know that UK dementia researchers are among the best in the world and have been behind some of the biggest breakthroughs in recent years. The institute will help to cement the UK’s world-leading position by boosting vital funding for research and creating a platform for close collaboration.

The positioning of the UK DRI across several locations will promote and grow partnerships with existing and emerging capabilities within the host universities, and the wider UK research landscape. For example, the institute will interact closely with the Dementias Platform UK, a public-private partnership led by the Medical Research Council, to build on cohorts and datasets to gain new insights into dementia. The UK DRI will also align with charity-led efforts such as Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Research Network and Drug Discovery Alliance.

What happens next?

Alongside this week’s announcement of the UK DRI centres, we have set out ambitious UK DRI foundation research programmes. Over summer 2017, the appointed associate directors at the centres will open more positions, including a significant number of professors to lead programmes and independent research fellows, and applications will be reviewed by an international panel.

The UK DRI will become a scientific hotbed and one of the most exciting places for breakthrough innovations, so we need top, ambitious scientists at all career stages. We especially want young people moving towards our institute from other areas of research to help bring innovative ideas to tackle dementia. We hope to attract talent from around the world from different fields across biomedical and translational research, to fill knowledge gaps and strengthen expertise.

How will the research strategy be decided, and can it be shaped?

I am particularly interested in how different cells in the brain work together and how brain circuitry and function is maintained over years despite the underlying disease processes. It is very important to understand how brain health is maintained over many decades, and if we understand that better we will certainly be able to profit from this knowledge to help people stay healthier for longer.

There is some obvious research that has to be done, including development of better ways to study the different diseases and translating basic research findings into new ways to help people with dementia as soon as possible. But a significant part of the budget will be used for bottom-up ideas. I expect that all the bright minds that the UK DRI will bring together will come up with exciting and fresh ideas.

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