Every promising research project counts

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By Clemens Kaminski | Tuesday 01 April 2014

Back in 2010 we welcomed a very talented researcher, Dr Claire Michel, to our team at the University of Cambridge. We use state-of-the-art microscopes to view proteins in minute detail. We were studying the behaviour of two hallmark Alzheimer’s proteins – tau and amyloid – to discover why and how these proteins were so damaging to nerve cells in the brain.

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Dr Claire Michel

Operating the powerful equipment requires intensive and highly specialised training. By 2012 Dr Michel had spent two years perfecting her skills, and was pioneering a groundbreaking project studying the behaviour of tau in living cells. Her work was creating a lot of excitement in the lab and she was the only person in the research group with the necessary skills to take this pioneering work forward.

We simply cannot afford to let skilled people, or promising projects be lost.

Then disaster struck. Our lab was facing a gap in funding as our current grant came to an end. It was hugely frustrating. The future of our research was under serious threat. We were in danger of losing Dr Michel, which also meant the field of dementia research was in danger of losing a very talented scientist.

We needed to buy a little time until we could secure more funding. So I applied for an Emergency Support Grant from Alzheimer’s Research UK. With the help of this emergency funding we were able to continue our research with Dr Michel on-board.

Subsequently her findings, revealing new insight into the behaviour of tau in cells, were published and peer reviewed, increasing the understanding of tau’s role in Alzheimer’s around the world.

The high resolution microscopy techniques used by Dr Michel revealed for the first time how tau passes between cells – this was one of the key questions that Alzheimer’s Research UK had identified as a knowledge gap in the understanding of Alzheimer’s.


The high resolution microscope built by University of Cambridge.

As a result in 2013 the team, including Dr Michel was awarded a three year Major Project Grant of £280,000 by Alzheimer’s Research UK, to build on these findings.

We are looking at how tau and amyloid interact and hoping to test some experimental drugs to prevent their toxic effects – the first stage in developing a potential treatment.

The whole team is very excited about the progress we are making. It would not be possible without the Emergency Support Grant we received, which was funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK and their incredible supporters.

Emergency Support Grants are a lifeline. As a direct result we are a step closer to understanding how Alzheimer’s develops, and have vital clues as to how this process might be stopped.

Following sustained campaigning by Alzheimer’s Research UK and other groups, the UK government has been spurred into action on dementia. But even with its commitment to double spending on research, and its harnessing of the G8 presidency to unite global efforts, dementia research remains critically underfunded.

Every single research project has the potential to yield a significant breakthrough, so we can’t afford to let any promising project be put on hold indefinitely.


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About the author

Clemens Kaminski

Clemens is a professor at the University of Cambridge developing optical microscopy techniques that permit one to 'see' the molecules that cause Alzheimer's disease in the brain. He has received funding from Alzheimer's Research UK to build a so called optical super resolution microscope that can see objects 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. His group is using it to conduct research on the disease.