Getting dementia research back on track
Prof Katie Lunnon, the new Chair of our Grant Review Board, explains why we are urgently prioritising funding for early career dementia researchers.
As the Chair of Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Grant Review Board, I’m part of a group of expert scientists to recommend the most promising dementia research projects for the charity to fund.
I’ve been a member of the Board since 2017 and have recently taken over the role of Chair. There are 22 members of the Board and we typically meet twice a year to identify the most promising research ideas for taking on one of our greatest medical challenge.
The past year has been tough. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a catastrophic impact on people with dementia. And while the need for dementia research has never been greater, sadly dementia research has not been immune to the financial effects of this pandemic.
Alzheimer’s Research UK is forecasting a loss of up to 35% of their expected income. Back when the UK went into the first lockdown, the charity made the difficult decision to pause their funding programme, putting dozens of new research proposals on hold.
However, thanks to your momentous support, we have reached an important stage of our recovery, as I chaired my first Grant Review Board meeting to recommend funding specifically for early career researchers to get their projects off the ground.
Why early career researchers are so important.
These researchers are at the start of their careers, including PhD students, all the way up to Senior Research Fellows who are transitioning to become independent researchers running their own group. They play a critical role in driving dementia research forward. We cannot afford to lose them now. I was once one of these early career researchers, and Alzheimer’s Research UK funding helped me at a critical stage in my career.
The charity has a proud history of supporting early career researchers and increasing the number of scientists in dementia research. Since 2009, the number of dementia researchers has more than doubled, and since then the number of discoveries the charity funded per year has increased five-fold.
Early career researchers often bring a fresh perspective, and their research makes an enormous contribution to the global dementia research effort.
Dr Petroula Proitsi, as an early career researcher, received a £419,000 grant from Alzheimer’s Research UK in 2016. Findings from her project showed that blood tests could detect people with Alzheimer’s as accurately as lumbar punctures. This research helped demonstrate the potential of blood-based markers as a diagnostic tool and is helping move the goal posts of dementia diagnosis.
In fact, Alzheimer’s Research UK’s funding for early career researchers has led to over 650 discoveries, and collaborations across 24 countries. These scientists go on to bring in funding from other sources too: for every £1 awarded to them, they have leveraged £1.75 in further funding.
But early career researchers are dependent on grants that they must apply for. It is extremely competitive at the best of times. Now, in the face of large funding gaps, they face tough decisions on whether dementia research is still a viable career choice for them.
The impact on early career researchers
I am in charge of my own research group at the University of Exeter and I’ve seen the huge impact COVID-19 has had on researchers in my lab, particularly those in the early stages of their careers.
At one stage no one could get in to do the work. And while we could write up some of the results we already had, we could not continue in this way. My team studies the relatively new field of epigenetics – a biological process that can switch genes on or off, potentially influencing the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s. It is a growing field and offers a novel approach to tackle dementia, but progress is by no means a certainty. It requires time, skilled staff, and investment.
On top of everything else, COVID-19 has given us a lot of forms to fill in and slowed down pace. Trying to work on Zoom has been inefficient, and everyone who is now back in the lab must socially distance and spend more time cleaning down and not doing science.
With funding bodies also hit by COVID-19, there have also been real worries that early career researchers may not be able to secure the funding they need to continue their work.
How you’re making it possible!
That is why to achieve the greatest impact and maximise progress in the dementia field, Alzheimer’s Research UK has decided to bring forward a funding programme specifically to support scientists who are in the earlier stages in their career.
It’s only been made possible through your support and fundraising efforts over the past year.
With a national lockdown in effect, I chaired a virtual meeting of the Grant Review Board, reviewing research proposals from a talented group of young researchers. We carefully reviewed a number of high-quality research proposals, assessing them on the quality of the scientific application, the researcher going to carry out the work, as well as the strength of the dementia research environment in which they will operate.
The Board will now make recommendations to Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Trustees, who must approve all of the charity’s funding.
For those whose research is funded, they will know their project has the backing of top dementia experts and those who passionately believe in changing the lives of people with dementia.
How you can continue to help
Maintaining the momentum in dementia research is critical. A decrease in investment in dementia research will jeopardise the significant scientific progress we have made in the last 20 years.
Help continue to support early career researchers, so that we can re-ignite the field and take a step closer to the first life-changing treatment for dementia.
More than ever, your support will make a difference.