Early career dementia researcher in Wales gets £170K boost

19 May 2021

Early career dementia researcher, Dr Natalie Connor-Robson at Cardiff University has received a £173,000 funding boost from Alzheimer’s Research UK made possible by charitable donations from Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation.

Why is this research needed?

The announcement from the UK’s leading dementia research charity comes during Dementia Action Week (17 – 23 May) and as part of a wave of new funding to support researchers hit hardest by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Dementia Action Week is dedicated to raising awareness of dementia, encouraging people to join efforts to create a future free from the fear, harm, and heartbreak of condition.

Dementia is caused by physical brain diseases, the most common being Alzheimer’s. Investigating the genetic factors behind Alzheimer’s is a challenge for scientists, as changes in so-called risk genes can be subtle and hard to detect. What is more having a risk gene does not necessarily mean people go on to develop the disease.

Recent research comparing the genetics of people with Alzheimer’s to those who don’t have the disease shows differences in genes linked with a molecular chain of events called the endocytic pathway. The endocytic pathway helps recycle material in our body’s cells, but its role during Alzheimer’s is poorly understood. Researchers are particularly interested in how the pathway is affected in nerve cells and microglia, two important types of cell in the brain.

What’s happening at Cardiff University?

At Cardiff University, Dr Connor-Robson will use a Nobel-prize winning technique to study cells collected from the blood of volunteers with Alzheimer’s disease. She will transform these cells so they can be changed into nerve cells and microglia. Dr Connor-Robson will use these to investigate how changes in the brain’s recycling system affects the function of the cells.

Alzheimer’s Research UK has committed £173,000 to the project. This funding has been made possible by Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation and additional funding has been committed by Cardiff University, the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) and the backing of a pharmaceutical company to expand on this work.

Speaking about getting funding for her project, Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow and UK DRI emerging leader Dr Natalie Connor-Robson, said:
“Alzheimer’s is a physical disease, which leads to the death of nerve cells in the brain. This research will help give us a better understanding of how genes in the endocytic pathway give rise to the disease and may point us in the direction of potential new treatment approaches.

“Getting the backing of research funders like Alzheimer’s Research UK is a boost to early career researchers like me. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people with dementia, but it is also making it difficult for early-career researchers who want to change the narrative when it comes to dementia.”

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research from Alzheimer’s Research UK added:
“Alzheimer’s is caused by a complex mix of age, genetics, and lifestyle factors. Understanding more about the genetics behind the development of disease will accelerate progress towards new treatments.

“Over 42,000 people living in Wales have dementia and this number is set to rise in the coming years. This vital new funding will support a new generation of dementia researchers as they aim to establish their own careers and explore new questions in dementia research. The fallout from COVID-19 makes it even more important that we continue to invest in life-changing research to understand the diseases that cause dementia, so we can stop these diseases in their tracks.”

How can you make a difference?

Ceri Smith, Regional Fundraising Officer for Wales, based in Cardiff said:
“We can only fund research like this in Cardiff thanks to our dedicated supporters, and charity partners Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation. They carry out amazing feats of fundraising both locally here in Cardiff and nationally, which helps us fund vital research in Wales.

Dementia Action Week is all about encouraging more people to join efforts to create a better society. We’re proud that Wales and Cardiff are home to world-leading dementia research, and we have a new Cardiff Fundraising group dedicated to helping raise funds for dementia research. To join contact myself on ceri.smith@alzheimersresearchuk.org