Dr Carol Routledge has recently joined Alzheimer’s Research UK as our new Director of Research. What experience does she bring to the charity and what does she see in the future for Alzheimer’s Research UK? We caught up with Carol as she begins her new role.
Really positive! Alzheimer’s Research UK is a great organisation to join for many reasons; the people here are totally committed to funding pioneering dementia research, they are extremely knowledgeable, very passionate about what they do and fully behind finding new treatments for dementia.
Alzheimer’s Research UK benefits from being solely focused on research meaning all our energy is channelled in one direction. The range of research initiatives is fantastic, from understanding the mechanisms that cause dementia, to finding new treatments and diagnostic tools. Personally, I think funding such early stage drug discovery projects is risky, many potential new medicines will fail but the real breakthroughs are likely to come through funding these innovative projects. Our investment in the new Dementia Research Institute highlights the commitment to basic research funding. In addition, Alzheimer’s Research UK are well placed to bridge the gap between this basic research and drug development which can be seen in our commitment to the Drug Discovery Alliance, the Dementia Consortium and the Dementia Discovery Fund. There is fantastic academic research happening here in the UK and it is really important that Alzheimer’s Research UK support the links between this and the pharmaceutical companies who have the expertise and capital to test potential new medicines in people.
What was your career path into dementia drug discovery?
My original interest in neuroscience was purely due to a brilliant neuroscience lecturer who taught me during my degree, and so when a PhD advert in neuroscience popped up on a board, I applied. The technology I developed during my PhD then enabled me to take a role in a Pharmaceutical company out in California setting up this technology and supporting the expansion of neuroscience within the company.
After five years in California, I began to miss England and so took a role back in the UK again working in preclinical neuroscience. This led to a role in SmithKline Beecham and it was here that I really took a keen interest in the more translational side of neuroscience, progressing potential new medicines from the lab bench towards patients. After several industry and Biotech positions within translational medicine, I took a slight change in career to join the new Dementia Discovery Fund, a fund focussed around the development of new treatments for dementia, before finally joining Alzheimer’s Research UK. Whilst I remain a strong supporter of the Dementia Discovery Fund, the philanthropic approach of Alzheimer’s research UK, and the focus on basic research and translational medicine are more strongly aligned to my aspirations.
Overall, I wouldn’t say I’ve had a directed career path. As opportunities appeared that meant I could use the knowledge I had and do something different with it, I took it. It was often a steep learning curve, but always interesting.
Growing up, had you always wanted to work with science?
I had always wanted to be a large animal vet! My dad was a shepherd and I grew up on a farm, so right from the beginning I was interested in caring for animals. However, the entry requirements for vet schools back then, especially for women, were inhibitory, I needed five A’s at A-level and I wasn’t even taking five A levels! I had considered going off to university then coming back to veterinary science, but once I started my degree I got really excited about neuroscience and went down that route instead, that is – trying to treat people instead of animals!
How has the dementia drug discovery field changed?
More people are living to an age where they’re more likely to develop diseases which underlie dementia, meaning the medical need and the personal and economic costs associated with the condition have grown significantly. This has brought a lot more funding and attention to dementia research.
There have been a number of advances in the field and so we now know a lot more than we did about dementia, with a deeper understanding of the risk factors, and the underlying processes involved in neurodegeneration. However, there are still big questions we need to answer.
More funding is still needed for dementia research and thankfully, people like you are changing that.
What are your responsibilities as Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK?
Very simply, I direct the research. The Research team does a great job across the board supporting research from discovery stage to early clinical stage, and I plan to work very closely with all of them to gain a thorough understanding of all aspects of the work we do. This will allow me to utilise my experience and expertise to enhance the various initiatives we fund. I am also looking to identify gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the disease processes underling dementia, and to address these by funding new innovative research into each of these areas. Finally, I’m a representative of Alzheimer’s Research UK, talking to external partners and the media while keeping up to date with the latest scientific findings.
What are your main priorities for Alzheimer’s Research UK?
One of my main priorities is to ensure all our research initiatives are working together. Global coordination is crucial in the fight against dementia and it’s important to bring everyone together to maximise our efforts. In addition, Alzheimer’s Research UK has the opportunity look to the future and identify technologies and approaches that will help diagnose and treat dementia, this is something I will be keen to focus on.
Personally, as I have worked on translational medicine for a long time, one of my goals is to understand how we can better support new clinical trials in dementia through our Global Clinical Trials Fund. The bottom line is that we all want to deliver new treatments for people affected by dementia and their families, and clinical trials are a vital part of that journey.