My reflections on the UK’s largest gathering of dementia researchers

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ALZHEIMERS_RESEARCH_CONFERENCE_DAY_TWO_210324-169

By Dr Sheona Scales | Friday 12 April 2024

A few weeks ago, I attended my first Alzheimer’s Research UK conference in my new role as the charity’s Director of Research.

Nearly 500 of us joined either in person in Liverpool or online, in the largest gathering of dementia researchers in the UK, to share latest insights into treatment, early diagnosis and prevention of dementia.

Returning to the neuroscience field after working in cancer for the past six years, I was inspired to see the energy and momentum in the dementia research community at what feels like a true turning point in dementia research. I’d like to share some of my reflections from the conference, and how research continues to offer hope for finding a cure for dementia.

“Keep going” – research is making a difference

Our incredible supporter Alison Littleford stepped up to the podium and opened our conference with the stark reality of caring for a loved one with dementia. “I’ve lost my sparring partner,” said Alison about her husband Frank, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2020. “We can’t have the stimulating, intellectual conversations we used to have, because of Alzheimer’s.”

Alison’s next words struck a chord: ‘Please don’t give up. Whatever your role in dementia research, you are making a vital contribution.’

We also heard from Jordan Adams, whose mum Geraldine passed away with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) aged just 53. Jordan underwent genetic testing and found out that he carries the same rare gene that caused his mother’s disease, and knows he will also follow the same path. He told us how the news has given him a ‘licence to live’ – he wants to use this time to raise awareness of dementia and support the work of Alzheimer’s Research UK. You can read more about his epic challenges – including running seven marathons in seven days.

Hearing Alison and Jordan share their personal experiences of dementia, I think, reminded all of us of the importance of our research for people and their loved ones living with dementia.

Research is ‘shifting the dial’ towards a cure.

So, where are we at with dementia research and progress towards a cure?

Our conference was a showcase of the latest developments across the dementia research landscape. With talks from PhD students right up to senior research leaders and global experts in their field, it was clear that this is a pivotal time in dementia research. Thanks to the dedication of our scientists working on this collective problem, we are edging nearer to a day when a cure might become a reality.

Joining virtually all the way from Nevada, we welcomed Prof Jeffrey Cummings, who gave a fantastic snapshot of the treatments which are now being developed in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease. Prof Cummings discussed the range of processes in the brain being targeted by these potential future treatments for Alzheimer’s – including inflammation, amyloid and tau build-up, and protecting components inside brain cells from damage.

Prof Siddharthan Chandran, Director of the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI), took to the podium with a clear message: understanding how our brains work is a complex problem. Finding new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent dementia will require collaboration between the best minds, from a broad range of disciplines in our international scientific community.

Prof Chandran took us through the key challenges in dementia research today, for example how some causes of dementia remain understudied, and the need for early diagnosis and treatment to effectively target the diseases behind dementia. Despite the many challenges in dementia research, and neuroscience in general, it was heartening to hear Prof Chandran showcase how UK researchers are the catalyst for progress in this field.

With a future focus on pinpointing precise mechanisms behind multiple dementia types, and maximising efficiency of clinical trials, Prof Chandran ended on an optimistic note – that research is ‘shifting the dial’ towards a cure.

In a fascinating session, Prof Tara Spires-Jones, based at the UK DRI in Edinburgh, explained how her group are studying pieces of brain donated from people affected by dementia to help them find new targets for future treatments. They have developed an approach where they cut the brain pieces into slices that are a thousand times thinner than a human hair, in order to view individual connections between nerve cells under the microscope.

Her team’s approach has revealed how the tau protein can spread from one nerve cell to another, contributing to progression of Alzheimer’s and FTD.

Recognising our researchers who are making incredible progress

Every year, we award outstanding dementia researchers. This year we had some fantastic prize winners:

  • Laura Pulford Prize: Chloe Anderson, a third-year PhD student at Ulster University, gave a fantastic talk about her work studying medicines that could be repurposed for treating Alzheimer’s. Most intriguingly, Chloe’s research suggests that a treatment’s effects could be different for males versus females, which has important implications for finding the most appropriate treatments for an individual.
  • The David Hague Early Career Investigator of the Year went to Dr Mootaz Salman, from the University of Oxford. His ‘organ-on-a-chip’ technology is allowing him to study how poor blood vessel health in the brain plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The Jean Corsan prize winner: Sahba Seddighi, also at Oxford, found a new biological ‘signature’ of certain types of FTD in lab-grown brain cells, which could help to detect the early signs of the disease in the future.
  • Our inaugural Stuart Pickering-Brown Prize: this went to Prof Tammaryn Lashley, based at University College London (UCL). This lifetime achievement award is in memory of Prof Stuart Pickering-Brown, who was behind many major discoveries into causes of FTD. Prof Lashley was a close friend of Prof Pickering-Brown, collaborating with him on many occasions. This new award recognises her outstanding contributions to dementia research throughout her career, characterising different subtypes of FTD, which will have a lasting impact on diagnosis and finding future treatments for the condition. You can read more about Prof Lashley’s career journey as a dementia researcher.

New treatments alone are not enough

The diseases that cause dementia can start 10-20 years before a person develops symptoms. And by the time symptoms appear, treatments may be far less effective.

Early diagnosis therefore goes hand-in-hand with new treatments. In a session dedicated to next-generation diagnosis methods, we heard from our expert panel about progress in this area.

Dr Vanessa Raymont is Senior Clinical Lecturer at the University of Oxford and the Associate Director of the Dementias Platform UK (DPUK). DPUK is a partnership between academia and industry, which collates extensive clinical research data, matching volunteers to trials and translating the latest research studies into clinical trials.

Dr Raymont explained how the DPUK’s work will ultimately ensure that new early diagnosis and treatment developments can translate into ‘real-world’ circumstances, giving people access to the right interventions sooner.

Then we heard from our Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Schott, who is a Professor of Neurology at University College London. Prof Schott shared exciting results from an international collaboration between academic researchers and leading pharmaceutical companies. Researchers showed that levels of a protein called ptau-217 in a person’s blood or spinal fluid are much higher in people with Alzheimer’s compared to people without the disease.

These results build on existing evidence that ptau-217 is a strong ‘biomarker’ of Alzheimer’s, which will influence the development of practical and accessible blood tests to help diagnose the disease as early as possible.

Both Dr Raymont and Prof Schott are leading studies that will set to bring blood tests for dementia a step closer to NHS.

As we get closer to treatments becoming available that can slow disease progression, finding faster and more accurate ways to diagnose the diseases that cause dementia will become even more important. This year’s conference has given us a tantalising snapshot of what’s to come, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Conclusions

For me, the ARUK Research Conference really demonstrated how our community are continuing to develop new approaches to generate key insights about the underpinnings of the diseases that cause dementia.

And this means we are getting ever closer to a cure, through fundamental research to understand the diseases that cause dementia, optimising early diagnosis and identifying new targets for drug discovery.

The diversity of research our charity has supported is incredible and I’m proud to join such an energised community. Now, more than ever, we need our drive and dedication demonstrated at this year’s conference to fast-track our work towards a cure.

My first conference with Alzheimer’s Research UK has set the bar extremely high and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next – Birmingham 2025!

 

Image credit: @beckyoliver.visuals

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5 Comments

  1. Doug on 12th April 2024 at 10:48 pm

    In the UK any breakthrough dementia drugs will only bring about meaningful change if the NHS:

    a). diagnoses dementias much more quickly than it is doing at the moment;
    b). moves patients along from diagnosis to management/treatment much more quickly than it is doing at the moment;
    c). can find/get/beg/borrow the countless ££ billions it is going to cost to roll out the projected new dementia drugs to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who are going to benefit from them.

    • Alzheimer's Research UK on 16th April 2024 at 4:46 pm

      Hi Doug, thanks for your comment. We must do all we can to ensure research breakthroughs reach people who can benefit from them. That includes increasing diagnostic capacity, and addressing the affordability changes posed by new treatments. You can find more about our recommendations to government in this area by reading our recent Tipping Point report.

  2. Christine on 16th April 2024 at 9:56 pm

    My husband has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I have known for several years that he had a problem but due to his extremely high functional levels he could sail through the 20 question tests.
    We even paid to see a consultant who didn’t see the problem.
    Something must happen be done to detect this kind of situation, it delays the chance of getting medication.

  3. Elizabeth on 17th April 2024 at 3:45 pm

    Reading all your detailed information on what your organisation does to help individuals with different forms of Dementia to get the vital drugs they require to help them, is amazing 👏 especially for close family and friends in my opinion who are probably the only one’s they have to reply on. NHS as a public service getting enough funding to inforce all Clinical research is followed through is depending on higher up boards deciding where and how to spend funding. I hope I have helped by making this statement. Glad I am one of your sponsors.

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About the author

Dr Sheona Scales

Director of Research