Care and Cure Magazine - Spring 2017

1. Breaking the knowledge barrier

Professor Bart de Strooper in a lab

Alzheimer’s Society is a founding partner in the UK’s first dedicated Dementia Research Institute. This is our biggest ever single investment in research and will play a critical role in our mission to transform the landscape of dementia.

The award-winning scientist Professor Bart de Strooper was selected to lead the UK’s landmark Dementia Research Institute after a competitive recruitment process last year. Professor de Strooper is a prominent Belgian dementia researcher at the University of Leuven. The location of the institute’s hub will be UCL (University College London) and up to six regional centres are to be announced over the coming months.

The pledge of £250 million towards the Dementia Research Institute, in partnership with the Medical Research Council and Alzheimer’s Research UK, marks one of the single biggest financial commitments to dementia research in the history of Alzheimer’s Society.

Professor de Strooper has an ambitious vision for this investment. ‘The aims of my directorship are to bring international talent to the UK and establish a unique research environment to deliver a step change in this important field,’ he says.

Having driven scientific excellence as Director of the Vlaams Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium, Professor de Strooper is well respected for his work to understand the fundamental mechanisms that underlie Alzheimer’s disease.

Time to grow

‘It is time to accelerate the research agenda’, says Professor de Strooper. ‘For Alzheimer’s disease we only have treatments that help to relieve the symptoms, and treatments for other types of dementia are even more limited. What is needed is curative therapy – treatments that can slow or stop the progression of these diseases.’

There have been no new treatments approved for any form of dementia since 2003, but biomedical research has yielded important insights and progress has been made in brain imaging and early diagnosis. ‘These promising new developments call for us to intensify our research efforts towards real prospects for new treatments,’ says Professor de Strooper.

‘Developing truly successful medication will require a much deeper understanding of the mechanisms underlying the loss of brain cells than we have today. The drugs that are currently being tested are based on our early understanding of how these diseases work. New efforts based on a more thorough biological understanding have much greater potential, but investment in research is needed to achieve that deeper knowledge.’

Professor de Strooper is clear about the research areas that could provide insights for future treatments. These include aspects of fundamental biological changes seen in many different forms of dementia, such as inflammation, dysfunction of the connections between brain cells and the abnormal processing of certain proteins in the brain. Translating better understanding of these into potential new treatments will be vital.

A strategy for success

How do you set up a research institute to bring about this change? Professor de Strooper says, ‘My aim is to set a dynamic pace and to establish a vibrant, ambitious and interactive neuroscience community.’

He recognises that creative thinking will be needed and that research is unpredictable, so the institute will provide an environment that allows scientists to carry out exploratory and innovative work. At the same time there will be clear priorities and leadership so that funding is given to the most promising lines of work.

‘There will be at least 400 people at the institute, including up to 25 professors and 25 fellows. The concentration of expertise in the institute should be attractive for talented and creative scientists from around the world.

‘We are looking for the world’s best neuroscientists, and will be encouraging scientists who have excelled in other areas to shift their interest to dementia. These leaders will be supported to inspire younger scientists and care for their careers, making the Dementia Research Institute an important platform to train the next generation of scientists.

‘Of course the Dementia Research Institute will not exist in isolation, and one of the attractions for me in this new role is the ability to tap into the UK’s world-class dementia research networks,’ says Professor de Strooper.

Quality of care

Two women having a conversationResearch to improve care for people with dementia is further from Professor de Strooper’s specialist scientific expertise, but it is firmly on the agenda.

‘The Dementia Research Institute must address the needs of people already living with dementia,’ says Professor de Strooper. Part of the funding will go towards care-related and public health aspects of dementia. This will be established in a second phase of development, led by an associate director who will connect with wider research activity in this area already taking place in the UK.

‘I think we can improve the quality of care research, and Alzheimer’s Society will be a good partner in this,’ says Professor de Strooper. ‘There are many things that are already known to help people living with dementia, such as personalised care and avoiding inappropriate prescriptions of certain drugs. We need to look at the evidence closely to see exactly what is known to work, and establish how we are going to implement these measures across the board.’

The vision for the Dementia Research Institute is bold and ambitious, and there is optimism that this investment will result in substantial improvements to the lives of people with dementia. However, Professor de Strooper is under no illusion that this is the end of the story.

‘The £250 million is the budget for the next seven years, and includes funding for an iconic dementia research facility in London. These funds over seven years only begin to close the gap with cancer and AIDS funding. It would be a mistake for the government and other funders to think they have done their job.’

Plans to establish the Dementia Research Institute hub at UCL are being developed, and we expect to see scientists starting work there by the end of 2017.