Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2018
I did not expect to be part of something so big. As a new member of the team, last week’s Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference in London was the first time I’d been to this annual gathering of dementia researchers. It was also the charity’s largest conference yet. Over 600 delegates came together to present their latest findings, share ideas, and forge vital collaborations that will help drive progress towards new discoveries.
Although I have only just joined Alzheimer’s Research UK, I felt incredibly proud to be wearing my orange t-shirt and representing the charity that had done such a fantastic job of organising the event. Everything, from the cutting-edge science to the feat of feeding hundreds of hungry scientists, was impressive.
Monday: Early Careers Day
I was lucky enough to attend the Early Careers Day and see researchers who are just embarking on their research careers give presentations about their work. They were all of a particularly high standard, with confident, concise and engaging presentations followed by incisive questions from the audience. It was especially nice to see Manchester PhD student James Quinn’s winning the Laura Pulford prize for his talk, which outlined how his research has developed since the blog he wrote at the start of his PhD in 2016. In the blog he describes how he was getting to grips with growing his cells in the laboratory and in his talk, it was clear he had mastered this, displaying a number of results demonstrating the effects of different sized proteins on the nerve cells.
Tuesday: Conference day one
The first day of the main Conference began with a humbling personal perspective from Rick Somerset-Williams. Rick spoke about how his family’s experience of dementia led him to become a supporter of Alzheimer’s Research UK and why he believes that the researchers gathered in the room, were the key to helping families like his. I think his story touched the hearts of many people in the room and certainly reminded the researchers why they do what they do.
Next came the flash presentations, where early career researchers had a chance to present their research to an audience that included the top dementia scientists in the country. I really liked how a couple of enterprising young scientists ended their quick-fire presentations on a cliff hanger, so that attendees would visit them in the poster room where they were displaying the full findings from their research.
This tactic was obviously successful for Yolande Ohene who went on to win the David Dawbarn prize for the best research poster after giving her confident and engaging flash presentation on how MRI brain scans could help diagnose dementia.
To round off the morning we heard about the six centres that make up the new UK Dementia Research Institute. Representatives from each centre outlined the work currently underway in their labs and the plans they have to accelerate the pace of progress at the Institute. Dr Adrian Ivinson, the Chief Operating Officer of the UK DRI, explained how, while the centres were spread out over the United Kingdom, they are working as if they were on different floors of the same building; one unit with a unified vision to defeat dementia.
In the afternoon, Chair of the Alzheimer’s Research UK Grant Review Board, Prof Tara Spires-Jones, took to the stage to update the conference on the interesting developments her lab is making to understand how nerve cell connections break down in Alzheimer’s. It was also great to hear from Harvard University’s Prof Jie Shen who was one of a number of international researchers who joined us for the Conference. Dementia is a global issue, and international collaboration is key to successfully delivering our research goals.
Wednesday: Conference day two
The second day kicked-off with a session involving Dr Jill Fowler from the University of Edinburgh. Dr Fowler gave a talk about her Alzheimer’s Research UK Senior Research Fellowship and her findings indicating that a loss of blood supply to the brain is an early feature of Alzheimer’s disease. She highlighted a potential target for future Alzheimer’s drugs, and explained how it might be modified to reduce brain damage in the disease.
In the afternoon we heard from Dr Ben Falcon, who went on to win the Dick Bell Prize for the best presentation from an early career researcher. His talk was truly fascinating, outlining how different forms of tau protein are related to particular forms of dementia. Tau protein builds up in nerve cells in a number of different brain diseases and identifying these differences in tau structure could pave the way to more personalised treatment approaches.
Shortly after this we heard talks from two more prize-winning researchers, one by Dr Davina Hensman Moss who won the Jean Corsan Prize for the best research paper by a PhD student, and the other by Dr Selina Wray who won the David Hague Early Career Investigator of the Year Award.
The Conference ended on a high with a talk from Dr John Skidmore from our Cambridge Drug Discovery Institute. He highlighted the progress his team is making towards drugs that could tackle processes that cause damage to the brain in diseases like Alzheimer’s: approaches that could one day transform the lives of people living with dementia.
Overall the conference was a huge success. It was inspiring to see so much pioneering dementia research underway in the UK and to hear about the ambitious initiatives that are taking on our greatest medical challenge. The growth of the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference over the years is a really positive sign. It reflects the growing number of scientists who are joining the fight to defeat dementia and the fantastic support Alzheimer’s Research UK gets from people like you – without which this important event would not be possible.