Introducing our new Director of Research
Dr Susan Kohlhaas has joined Alzheimer’s Research UK as our new Director of Research.
Susan has over a decade of experience at medical research charities, most recently as Executive Director of Research and External Affairs at MS Society.
We caught up with Susan to find out more about her background and the work she will be doing at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
What has been your career path to date?
After doing my PhD in Leicester I moved to the Cambridge area and worked as a researcher at the Babraham Institute. From there I decided to move into science communications, having had some experience of volunteering at the Cambridge Science Festival and doing some public outreach with schools. The perfect role came up at the MS Society and I jumped at the chance to join the charity sector.
I was at the MS Society for about seven years in various roles, including as their Head of Biomedical Research. From there I moved to the National Cancer Research Institute as the Head of Strategy and Initiatives. I was there for around 14 months when I was offered the opportunity to re-join the MS Society as their Director of Research at a time when they were beginning to implement the research strategy attached to their £100m Stop MS Appeal. I’d been responsible for writing the strategy and I was so excited to have the chance to see it through.
During my last three and a half years at the MS Society I’ve been responsible for running the research programme with key efforts in developing a new, and exciting clinical trials programme, further developing some of our key infrastructure programmes, and building and developing partnerships with other research funders both nationally and internationally.
Were you always interested in science and biology?
Yes, but the thing I love about working in the charity sector is the impact I can have. I like the fact that I can look at broad areas of research and see how they all fit together to make the lives of people better.
As a research funder, Alzheimer’s Research UK and others play a crucial role in giving hope to people affected by dementia and will play a crucial role in unlocking the discoveries needed to develop treatments that slow and prevent dementias.
That’s what really drives me and it’s amazing to be able to use my scientific background to play a part in the progress that’s being made.
What are your responsibilities as Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK?
As Director of Research I’ll be responsible for developing and recommending research strategy to Alzheimer’s Research UK Board of Trustees and making sure that strategy has the right input from the scientific community and people affected by dementia. I’ll be responsible for implementing the strategy too and making sure that what we fund is of high quality and relevant to our strategy, but also has the most impact on the lives of people affected by dementia.
One of the other areas I’d love to look at is partnership opportunities. Nobody does research in a vacuum and it’s really important if we’re to make progress that we’re working with a range of initiatives where there are shared interests in developing treatments for dementia.
This seems quite daunting but Alzheimer’s Research UK has a great team in place to help drive progress so I’m feeling really optimistic about the future.
Is there anything that dementia research can learn from the MS field?
I think there’s a lot that the dementia field can learn from the MS and other fields and vice versa. The biggest thing we’ve seen in the field of MS is the onset of disease modifying drugs. It wasn’t really until researchers unlocked crucial new understanding of the disease in the mid-90s that we saw some success with trials. Once we’d done that we started to really see some progress with a number of new treatments as well as treatments repurposed from the cancer and rheumatology field. These drugs all tackle the immune component of the disease.
The next challenge, which I suppose is similar in dementia, is to understand the mechanisms of neurodegeneration and develop targets to test. It sounds simple but there are so many elements that need to be tackled in order to make this work happen and people from so many different disciplines to make it work.
Is it particularly challenging to make progress in neurological research?
One of the big challenges in neurological research that doesn’t necessarily exist in other areas is the blood brain barrier. It’s designed to protect the brain and keep things out, but that means that when people have neurological diseases, they can be difficult to treat.
The other big issue with neurological diseases is that symptoms can be vague, difficult to measure and can be varied because they are diseases of the brain. That makes them difficult to identify and track.
New technology, AI and machine learning and the advent of data and tech provides us with so much opportunity to define these conditions in different ways and track the natural history of them so that we can begin to identify risk factors earlier and ultimately, developing treatments and prevention strategies. That’s why initiatives like EDoN are so crucial.
What attracted you to a role at Alzheimer’s Research UK?
Alzheimer’s Research UK is a charity that I’ve always admired for its world class research programme and unrelenting focus on developing treatments and cures for dementia. But also, like so many others, I’ve been personally affected by dementia and have seen the devastating impact it can have on families and loved ones.
The opportunity to build on the programme at a crucial time for dementia research is one that I’m really excited about!
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I have two young children who are eight and five so when we aren’t in lockdown I am spending my free time going back and forth to swimming, karate and other lessons. During lockdown it’s been great to take them to the football pitch in our village and play some football, go on walks in the countryside and generally enjoy a slightly slower pace. I hope we can retain some of that when lockdown ends.
The other thing that people will soon discover about me is that I’m a Leicester City supporter, having lived there for most of my formative years and supported them through some of their worst years! I try to go to at least a few games a season nowadays.
What is one thing you can’t live without?
Cheese. When I left the MS Society one of my presents from my colleagues was a cheese of the month club. They know me so well!