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£17 Million Awards add to Momentum of UK Neurodegenerative Disease Research

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Three bold new research programmes focusing on devastating neurodegenerative diseases – Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and motor neurone disease – have received £16.99 million from the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

The multi-disciplinary collaborations aim to provide a better understanding of the causes of these diseases in a bid to improve early diagnosis and develop more effective therapies. The collaborations bring together leading academic research teams from around the UK, from London, Bristol, Cambridge, Dundee, Manchester and Sheffield), as well as leading international groups and pharmaceutical companies.

Two of the collaborations involve researchers who have returned to the UK to conduct their work, Professor Peter St George-Hyslop from the University of Cambridge and Professor John Hardy from UCL (University College London). This is seen as a testament to the gathering momentum of research into neurodegenerative diseases in the UK, which today receives this further substantial boost.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, Chair of the Neurodegenerative Diseases Initiative Funding Committee said.

"These are teams of outstanding researchers with a clear vision and innovative approach to understanding these conditions and towards developing novel interventions. The scientific challenges are considerable and these benefits will not materialise overnight, but these major awards will change the research landscape in which these disorders are being addressed."

Neurodegenerative diseases represent a significant burden on patients and carers, as well to wider society and the economy. As the elderly population increases worldwide, this burden is set to increase further.

Although treatment options are already available for some conditions, these are generally of very limited effectiveness and treat the symptoms rather than preventing onset. The development of new therapeutic approaches is therefore essential. Alongside this, identifying markers to allow for the earliest possible diagnosis will maximise the effectiveness of preventative measures and optimise the use of current treatments.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust said:
"Neurodegenerative diseases cause a great deal of human suffering and place considerable burden on our health services. New advances in biomedical science, ranging from clinical through to molecular and genetic studies – make this an exceptionally timely moment to focus on better understanding what causes these conditions and ever earlier identification of their incipient onset."

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the MRC, said:
"It’s likely that over our lifetimes we will all be touched in some way by the impact of neurodegenerative diseases. By investment in the scientific excellence now, we hope research will bear real fruit in future practice, eventually leading to improved early diagnosis and more effective therapies. We’re proud to provide some of the financial muscle behind these really innovative research projects, which embrace a number of disciplines, to tackle these debilitating conditions."

* Alzheimer’s disease and related neurodegenerative disorders

Principal investigator: Professor Peter St George-Hyslop, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, University of Cambridge

The accumulation of the two proteins amyloid beta and tau is a characteristic feature of Alzheimer's disease. Professor St George-Hyslop and colleagues will use novel methods from physics, chemistry and biology to discover how this accumulation results in the death of brain cells. The information will allow the creation of accurate and sensitive diagnostic tests and new ways to treat these diseases.

* Motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia

Principal investigator: Professor Christopher Shaw, MRC Centre for Neurodegeneration Research, King’s College London

Recent research on motor neurone disease and frontotemporal dementia has shown that RNA-processing proteins are deposited in degenerating nerve cells and that rare mutations in three known genes cause a genetic form of these diseases. Using these discoveries, Professor Shaw and his colleagues will model key aspects of the human disorders, allowing them to explore fundamental disease mechanisms and identify new therapeutic targets.

* Parkinson’s disease

Principal investigators: Professors Nicholas Wood, John Hardy and Anthony Schapira, Institute of Neurology, UCL

The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, although it is clear that it is a disease of ageing and there are now some established genetic risk factors. To understand how these factors combine, the collaboration aims to dissect and understand the genetic architecture of Parkinson’s, to identify and characterise the biochemical pathways involved, and to take lessons from the biology of people at risk of the disease to understand its very earliest stages.