Celebrating the progress made by Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Alliance


By Quang Tran | Thursday 08 December 2022

It all started back in 2013, with a look at what Alzheimer’s Research UK was then funding. “We looked at our research portfolio and realised that most of it was unlikely to bring patient benefit within a 10-year time horizon” recalled Dr Eric Karran, who was, back then, Alzheimer’s Research UK Director of Research.

“We decided we need to find ways to fill the gap between the lab and the clinic. That’s where the idea of investing much more heavily in translating our research came from.”

The outcome of that ‘idea’ was launched in 2015: Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Drug Discovery Alliance (DDA) – an ambitious multi-million-pound dementia drug discovery initiative.

Comprised of three Drug Discovery Institutes (DDIs), based within University College London, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, the Alliance set out to bridge the gap between discovery science taking place in universities, and drug development expertise in pharmaceutical companies.

Karran – now Vice President of Neuroscience Drug Discovery at pharma giant AbbVie – was speaking at an event to celebrate the tremendous progress made by the DDA since its inception, to which we brought together everyone from the three institutes over two days in London.

An evening of celebration

The first part of the event – postponed from its original date by the pandemic – was an evening reception. Joined by supporters of the DDA, from academia and industry partners, to venture capital organisations, the Celebration Evening was brimming with excitement, as the assembled attendees could finally get together to celebrate their successes and connect with people from other institutes.

The Evening started off with conversations with the people who started the DDA – Dr Eric Karran and Dr Mike O’Neill, along with our CEO Hilary Evans, who was then the charity’s Director of External Affairs. They talked about the importance of the DDA at the time it was launched, and why the work of the alliance is even more crucial

It was evident that the DDA is led by a strong team of passionate scientists.

Left photo: ARUK Director of Research Dr Susan Kohlhaas, in conversation with ARUK CEO Hilary Evans, Dr Eric Karran (AbbVie) and Dr Mike O’Neill (AbbVie).
Right photo: Dr Susan Kohlhaas with Prof John Davis (Director of Business Development), Prof Paul Brennan (Oxford DDI Chief Scientific Officer), and Prof Fiona Randall (UCL DDI Chief Scientific Officer).


Greater than the sum of its parts

The pioneering research at the DDA has been made possible by the talented scientists working within the three institutes, and the second day – a Networking Event – showcased a number of projects taking place across the initiative.

There is clearly a strong sense of camaraderie within the DDA – everyone shares a common determination to discover life-changing treatments for people living with dementia. While each institute draws upon the particular expertise of their host institution and their drug discovery projects focus on different aspects of diseases that cause dementia, there are plenty of opportunities for the DDIs to collaborate with one another.

In recent years, the UCL DDI worked together with the Oxford and Cambridge DDIs on specific projects, capitalising on complementary expertise and the unique sets of skills and resources of each institute.

For example, we heard about a joint Oxford and UCL project looking for early-stage drugs that could affect the function of a protein called PLCG2, which is found in microglial cells in the brain. Improving the function of microglia, a key part of the brain’s immune system, is one of the innovative approaches that DDA scientists are pioneering to bring about new dementia treatments. We also heard about the work of different teams, from the in vivo biology team at Cambridge to the organelle biology team at Oxford.

Thanks to everyone’s hard work, on top of the £55m committed by ARUK, the DDA has raised an additional £26m, through application to other scientific grants and partnering with with pharma companies and other third-sector institutions.

Caption: A group photo of everyone working in the DDA.

Drug discovery is a collaborative effort

When the DDA was first set up, each Institute was tasked to capitalise on the outstanding science happening in each university.

Today, the DDA has extended its reach, forming collaborations with scientists across 70 organisations in 13 countries around the world. This brings in expertise to drive forward new and exciting projects.

Currently there are over 20 targets being explored with leading academics, and almost all of them in partnership with pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

These national and international collaborations include working with the AI drug discovery biotech Exscientia, partnering with scientists from the Tau Consortium, and starting the spin-off company AstronauTx, which builds on the work from the UCL DDI.

Created in 2018, AstronauTx was successful in leveraging £6.5M of venture capital investment from the Dementia Discovery Fund.

Making the biggest impact on people with dementia

At the DDA Networking Day, we were joined by Julie Walker and Andrew Johnson, who are both living with Parkinson’s disease. Despite the constant challenges and setbacks, they have managed to find the positives in their daily lives and make the most out of it, from writing poems to singing karaoke.

It was a welcome reminder for everyone in the room of the importance of their own work, which can often seem remote from the daily challenges of people living with neurodegenerative diseases. Everyone in the DDA is working hard to validate targets that could lead to new treatments, which can be life-changing for people like Julie and Andrew.

Caption: Julie and Andy talking about their experiences living with a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis

Since its inception, the DDA has worked on over 60 projects, but the drug discovery landscape is constantly changing. ARUK’s latest five-year research strategy re-emphasises our commitment to finding life-changing treatments to bring hope to people living with dementia.

As Dr Eric Karran said in his plenary talk, “Technology has revolutionised approaches to drug discovery.” The DDA is perfectly placed to capitalise on this revolution. And with world-class leaders, and a huge depth of research expertise, it can continue to look for opportunities, form new partnerships and establish strategic initiatives that will accelerate the discovery of new treatments for dementia.

Find out more about ARUK’s translational initiatives.



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Quang Tran