Reversed Brexit: £250 million for Bart De Strooper’s dementia research

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The UK has pledged a budget of £250 million to the creation of the UK Dementia Research Institute (DRI). The institute hopes to assemble top-notch neurodegenerative research from around the country into one central initiative to accelerate progress in the research field. VIB director and KU Leuven professor Bart De Strooper was selected to lead the initiative and will base the construction of the institute on the highly-successful VIB model.

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In June of 2013, the UK hosted the 39th G8 meeting. At the symposium, dementia was categorized as one of the most pressing problems of the Western world. Then Prime Minister David Cameron decided to act and pledged £150 million to the creation of an institute to further knowledge in this domain. Thus, the UK Dementia Research Institute was born. With another £50 million each from charity partners Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society, the investment budget increased to an impressive total of £250 million.

New paradigms in Alzheimer’s disease are needed to propel innovative drug development.

A world-class research institute such as this requires a director of the same standing, and the search for a qualified and fitting director began. After being contacted and encouraged by several prominent scientists in the dementia field, Bart De Strooper, current director of the VIB Center for Brain and Disease Research, submitted his candidacy. Today, the Belgian Alzheimer’s specialist is planning how the new institute will change the way we approach dementia.
“With the UK Dementia Research Institute, we want to bring all the best research on dementia in the UK together,” explains De Strooper. “Many top-notch research groups are present and our goal is to integrate these into a functional whole, facilitating collaboration and exchange of information.”

Return to fundamental research is absolutely necessary

For De Strooper, the priority of the institute is clear: high-level fundamental research into the mechanisms that drive dementia and brain disease. “We know way too little about these diseases and the models we use are too simple,” says De Strooper. “A lot of clinical research has been done based on our current insights, but little progress has been made. New paradigms in Alzheimer’s disease are needed to propel innovative drug development. That’s why a return to fundamental research is absolutely necessary.”

Researchers understand that they need to lay a new foundation of scientific insights upon which drug development can build. This was also stressed by a string of recent failures in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s drugs. The classic amyloid hypothesis, in which aggregation of amyloid β protein causes Alzheimer’s disease, is taking some hard hits. De Strooper, however, does not agree with much of the pessimism in the field of Alzheimer’s disease.

Many of the amyloid drugs that are branded as failures today could be used to prevent disease in the future.

“When I was a young researcher, AIDS was making its rise and a lot of similar pessimism was present. Huge amounts of money were invested in HIV research and there were many failures in clinical trials,” explains De Strooper. “Nonetheless, today we have effective therapies to treat this disease. While the amyloid hypothesis might be an oversimplification, it is without a doubt an important aspect of Alzheimer’s disease. Nowadays, patients can be accurately separated in groups with different characteristics thanks to those trials.

“One of the most interesting things about the disease is that patients can be affected by Alzheimer’s for 10 to 15 years before symptoms appear,” continues De Strooper. “The human brain has a huge capacity to cope with the formation of amyloid plaques, which is an early hallmark. Using drugs to counter this at the symptomatic stage of the disease is far too late. Many of the amyloid drugs that are branded as failures today could be used to prevent disease in the future.”

VIB as the blueprint for DRI

The fact that De Strooper was selected to head this ambitious initiative is no coincidence. His world-renowned expertise in Alzheimer’s disease and experience as VIB director make him the perfect candidate for the job. The latter was especially of interest to his British colleagues.

“In the evaluation of VIB, international top scientists are always involved,” says De Strooper. “My British colleagues were very much intrigued by the VIB model of a research institute, and it is based on this template that we will construct the DRI. The bar is set very high for research groups willing to participate and only the best performing groups are eligible for DRI funding.

By interacting more and more with scientists from all around the world in dementia research, it has become clear to me that the research performed at the VIB-KULeuven is really among the best in the world. We shouldn’t be shy to say people can learn something from us!”

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Photo courtesey of VIB