With the recent announcement of a potential new Alzheimer’s drug showing promising results in late stage clinical trials, there has never been greater urgency to improve how we diagnose diseases like Alzheimer’s early and bring new treatment breakthroughs to people with dementia.
Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Chief Medical Officer will help shape our emerging priority areas, including the development of new tools to improve the very early identification of diseases and ensuring swift access to any new life-changing treatments within the NHS.
This responsibility is being taken up by top dementia researcher and clinician, Prof Jonathan Schott.
We spent some time getting to know Prof Schott a little better.
What is your main responsibility as Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Chief Medical Officer?
As a clinical researcher working both in the NHS and in a university, my role as Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Chief Medical Officer is to drive forward the research agenda with focus on how basic science findings can be moved forwards to benefit patients. I will also play a role supporting and shaping ongoing policy, advocacy and strategy work at the charity.
I am honoured to take up the position and to have the opportunity to work with an inspiring organisation to help shape the research agenda with patient benefit always in mind.
What other responsibilities do you have?
As Professor of Neurology at the Dementia Research Centre, UCL and as Honorary Consultant Neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, I spend 40% of my time working for the NHS. This involves running a busy cognitive disorders service with an emphasis on young onset and unusual dementias.
My research focuses on how clinical assessment, brain imaging, genetics and markers of disease can be combined to improve diagnosis and identify Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia before symptoms show.
I also lead Insight 46, a major Alzheimer’s Research UK-funded study, that’s been following a group of people since their birth in the same week in March 1946 and is now turning its focus to the risk factors and early signs of dementia.
How will your experience help Alzheimer’s Research UK bring about a life-changing treatment?
I hope that my experience both as a clinician seeing patients with a range of dementias, and as an academic leading large studies with groups of people and collaborating with a wide range of researchers, will help ensure that research funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK will provide benefit for patients as quickly as possible.
What exciting area of research now is looking most likely to benefit people?
I strongly believe that clinical research starts with a correct diagnosis; this is even more important if we are to identify individuals in the very earliest stages of disease – and ideally before symptoms show – when new treatments are likely to have most impact.
I am particularly excited by the rapid advances that are occurring in the development of blood tests, which have the potential to revolutionise how we diagnose Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as providing a potential way to identify people at risk .
How can the people help researchers discover more about Alzheimer’s?
To make progress in dementia research we are dependent on the amazing commitment of patients and volunteers who take part in our studies. Everyone can do something to help – and it is part of the role of researchers to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute to what is, and increasingly needs to be, a team effort to overcome dementia.
People can contribute to research in numerous ways. This includes completing questionnaires, donating blood samples, having lumbar punctures, undergoing scans, and taking part in drug trials.
It is equally importantly to acknowledge the role of carers and family members who accompany and support those who are taking part in studies; those who raise much needed money to support the research; and those who through sharing their experiences raise awareness of dementia.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
There have been many! I am proud to work as a neurologist in the NHS and doing what I can to help people living with dementia and their families. This also provides a weekly and sobering reminder of how much more research is needed.
I am proud of the work I have been able to contribute to with amazing colleagues at UCL and numerous collaborators to define and understand posterior cortical atrophy, sometimes known as the visual variant of Alzheimer’s disease; to show that brain changes occur before symptoms show.
More recently I’m proud of the work to determine how and when in life blood pressure influences brain changes relevant to dementia.
What first got you interested in medicine?
My great grandfather and grandfather were cardiologists, my father was a neurologist and my mother a nurse.
There was much medical talk over the dinner table, numerous science books around the house, and it was perhaps inevitable that I would follow a clinical academic career – although my brother escaped the family tradition to become a well-known writer.
What is the one thing you can’t live without?