Prof Bart De Strooper to lead UK Dementia Research Institute from UCL Hub

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By Philip Tubby | Wednesday 14 December 2016

The director of the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) has been named as Prof Bart De Strooper, current leader of the Laboratory for the Research of Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Leuven and scientific director at VIB (Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie) in Belgium.

Prof De Strooper will lead the national institute from UCL. Alzheimer’s Research UK has given its biggest ever financial commitment to a single research initiative by pledging to invest £50m to the UK DRI.

The UK DRI is a joint £250m investment into dementia research led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) alongside founding charity partners Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society. The Institute will be catalytic in the UK’s research efforts to diagnose, treat, care for and prevent dementias, a group of neurodegenerative disorders which include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and vascular dementia. It will transform dementia research by connecting researchers working across different disciplines, including those outside of the dementias field, and attracting leading experts from around the UK and the world.

Prof De Strooper was chosen as the Director of the UK DRI after a competitive international search led by the MRC. People living with dementia and carers from the founding charity networks met the final candidates to contribute their views into the decision making process. The Institute will ultimately operate across a number of UK locations, with its ‘Hub’ to be based at UCL, which was chosen through a competitive peer-review process. UCL was recognised for its world-class dementia research and state-of-the-art facilities, which will be enhanced through close linkage to a number of regional DRI centres, to be established over the coming months.

Prof De Strooper said:

“I am delighted to have been chosen to lead on a world-leading initiative with as much potential as the UK DRI. The research landscape in the UK is brimming with talent and opportunity and, thanks to the NHS, research is closely allied to patients.”

Recent advances in genetics, diagnostics and imaging have advanced scientists’ understanding of what causes dementia. However, with significant knowledge gaps still in place, there are currently no treatments available that can stop or slow down the progressive condition.

Prof De Strooper continued,

“Right now, our understanding of these diseases is not dissimilar to what we knew, or thought we knew, about cancer several decades ago. What we need is a paradigm shift in the way we think about dementias. Just as we realised that a whole range of factors is responsible for how cancers occur and progress in an individual, we now need to take a more holistic view of dementia and accept that a wide range of approaches may be needed in order to be successful. We have a huge amount of discovery science to do – and I want to see real surprises.”

With dementia recently recognised as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, and with a globally ageing population, it is more urgent than ever to accelerate efforts. Prof De Strooper believes that if we can intervene at the earliest possible stage, it may be possible to get a step ahead and delay, or ultimately prevent, its onset with a range of targeted treatments.

Hilary Evans, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Today is a significant day for the UK DRI, with the vision for a world-leading national Institute in dementia research starting to become a reality. The UK DRI will become a tour de force for UK dementia science, bolstering existing research efforts through multi-disciplinary approaches that tackle the condition from different angles. Alzheimer’s Research UK has already worked closely with Prof De Strooper in his role as academic advisor to our UCL-based Drug Discovery Institute, and we are delighted he will be leading the work of the UK DRI. Sustained high-level funding for research is vital to drive the advances that will change the lives of people with dementia.”

Prof Sir John Savill, Chief Executive at the MRC, added:

“Dementia research is a very high priority at the MRC and the new Institute will place the UK at the centre of a global ambition to overcome these diseases. We are thrilled to have attracted such an outstanding scientist as Prof De Strooper and look forward to seeing his ambitious vision bringing together the best science across the UK and internationally to move the frontier of knowledge in dementias research.”

Jo Johnson, Universities and Science Minister, said:

“Based in the heart of London’s knowledge quarter, this new dementia research institute at UCL will be the centre of a UK-wide effort to develop new treatments that will improve the lives of millions both here in the UK and around the globe.

“This is another example of the UK’s world-class leadership in global science and research, and the core strengths we will build on through our upcoming Industrial Strategy.”

UCL President and Provost Prof Michael Arthur, said:

“UCL can lay claim to world-leading expertise across the spectrum of dementia research, from genetics to evidence based treatments and support for patients and carers. We have both the ambition and ability to make a difference and meet the challenge of this most pressing of global public health problems.

“Our vision for a DRI is a truly national asset that facilitates exchanges of ideas, people and resources between groups, disciplines and centres. A UCL DRI Hub will enable and support all DRI centres to deliver on the Prime Minister’s dementia challenge 2020 and internationally on the G7 Dementia Summit Declaration.”

About the author

Philip Tubby